The Land Rover pulled up outside on the driveway, gravel crunching.
“Oh, thank goodness,” said Mrs Marlow to no-one in particular. “We can have dinner on time for once and not keep Mrs Bertie waiting.”
Peter came through the door, his face drawn and stark.
“Mum, someone’s with me,” he said, then left the room immediately.
“Peter?” said his mother, and looked after him with surprise. “I’d better see what’s up with him,” she said to the room in general and followed him out. “Girls, please look after the visitor,” she called over her shoulder.
Ann looked up from the plates she was laying on the table, and saw a strange young man waiting hesitantly at the door. He had a small suitcase, which he put on the ground.
“Do come in,” she said. “I’m Ann Marlow, these are my sisters,” gesturing at Kay, Rowan, Lawrie and Ginty, who were variously engaged in the many tasks needed to set the table for ten. “Are you a friend of Jon’s?”
“Yes,” said the young man. “My name is Roger Walker. I brought Peter home in Jon’s car.”
“Oh,” said Ann, “is Jon delayed at the airport?”
At that moment Mrs Marlow came back into the room. Her face was white.
“Can you tell us what has happened, please?” she said. “Peter said there has been an accident.”
The girls all looked at each other in consternation.
“Mrs Marlow, I am a friend of Jon’s, Roger Walker,” said the young man. “I am very sorry to have to tell you all that Jon has had an accident. His plane malfunctioned, they think, and has crashed. I am so sorry: Jon did not survive the crash.”
There was complete silence – not one of them said anything. Kay sat down, with Lawrie next to her. Rowan looked thunderstruck; Ginty looked as if she might cry and Ann closed her eyes and stood with head bowed.
“I will fetch my husband, Jon’s cousin,” said Mrs Marlow. “Please wait here.”
In silence and stillness, they all waited. It was almost as if no-one breathed.
A few minutes later, their father came into the room, followed by their mother.
“Mr Walker,” he said, shaking hands with Roger. “What has happened?”
“A crash, sir.” Roger knew from the times he had had to break such news during the war that there was no point in delay. “The plane did not pull out of an ascent correctly, stalled, then dived and crashed. Jon had no chance of bailing out or surviving the fall.”
At that, a few of the girls gasped. Kay pressed Lawrie’s shoulder and Rowan turned away.
“Did my son see the crash?” asked Mrs Marlow.
“I was standing beside Peter. When I saw the plane start to fall, I turned him away from it,” said Roger. He was finding this increasingly difficult. “So, no, he didn’t witness the actual crash.
“Thank you for that,” said the boy’s mother quietly.
Roger added, “But the fire afterwards… yes.”
Ann put her hands over her face and Ginty cried in earnest. Rowan said nothing. Neither did the man, Jon’s cousin.
“Perhaps we might discuss this in private, Mr Marlow?” suggested Roger Walker.
Roger had not expected to have to tell so many people at once. It wasn’t really up to him anyway – but the boy had had to be brought home. Someone had to bring him, and as Jon’s friend and frequent visitor to Trennels, it had seemed Roger was the most appropriate person. Jon had invited him to stay the night, if he didn’t mind a house full of his young cousins. But right now, Roger would rather be anywhere than here. The phrase, “at the bottom of the deep blue sea” flitted into his mind. And it seems this lot weren’t expecting him. Better to leave.
“It’s Captain Marlow,” said the hard-looking man with a stern look, which no doubt quelled many young subalterns but had no effect whatsoever on Roger.
“How irrelevant,” Roger thought. He held out the keys to Jon’s Land Rover and Captain Marlow took them.
“This way,” was the curt invitation. The two men disappeared into the study used by Jon to do his accounts.
“Oh goodness, Nicola is still not back,” said Mrs Marlow. “I told Peter I would tell her. And I had better ring the Merricks at once. I think Patrick rather idolizes Jon. Idolized,” she corrected herself.
“I’ll find Peter,” said Ann, and left the room.
But she returned a few minutes later, when Mrs Marlow had finished her phone call.
“Peter’s not in his room,” said Ann, “and I can’t find him anywhere.”
“Oh, I do hope he hasn’t taken it upon himself to find Nicola and Patrick and tell them,” said her mother. “Mrs Merrick was very concerned that Patrick will be very upset. Very upset,” she repeated sadly.
At that moment, Nicola and Peter entered the room one after the other.
“Do the Merricks know?” asked Nicola immediately. Obviously, Peter had told Nicola.
“Yes, I have rung them,” said her mother. “Mrs Merrick is telling Patrick now.”
Nicola sat down heavily, and Peter left the room again.
Ann disappeared; a few moments later she returned. “I have told Mrs Bertie and Doris,” she said. “They were very upset.”
“Oh Ann, I should have done that,” said her mother. When Ann looked hurt, she added hastily, “It’s alright, dear, thank you for the thought. I’d better see them now. They have been here such a long time. Oh goodness, there are the Tranters too.”
“Would you like me to see them?” said Ann.
“Leave it. Can’t you just shut up, Ann?” thought Ginty.
“Perhaps, I don’t know…” said Mrs Marlow distractedly.
“I will go and see the Tranters now,” said Captain Marlow, walking into the room at that moment, followed by Roger. “Thank you for coming, Mr. Walker,” he said abruptly, and left the house.
Roger considered correcting him, but thought, “What’s the point.” He decided to leave. He had no car, and had to get back to town.
“I do beg your pardon, Mrs Marlow,” he said. “Is there a train I can catch? I really should be going,” he said diffidently. He hoped no-one noticed his suitcase.
“There’s a train at 5.45,” said the otherwise silent Rowan. Roger looked at her briefly.
“Thanks,” he said. “Mrs Marlow, girls, please accept my sympathy. Goodbye. Will you give my regards to Peter and Captain Marlow?”
They shook hands, Mrs Marlow now seeming to be almost unable to speak.
Roger escaped thankfully but Ann followed him out of the door. “I can walk with you to the station,” she said.
“That’s really not necessary,” replied Roger, picking up his suitcase.
“Oh yes,” said Ann earnestly, “you were so kind looking after Peter and coming to tell us the terrible news. I’m sure you can’t have wanted to.”
Roger looked at her properly for the first time. Like all the rest of them, she was fair, but there was both animation and kindness in her face, presently lacking in the others. Or maybe she just liked pushing herself in where she wasn’t wanted.
“Thank you, I would like that,” he said simply, and set off with his young companion for the station through the golden light of the evening.
“Have you known my cousin for a long time, Mr. Walker?” asked Ann, after a few minutes of silence on either side.
“Yes, since the early days of the war,” said Roger. “We were in the same squadron.”
“You were a flier?” said Ann. “I’m sorry, is it Squadron Leader Walker?”
“Yes, I was a flier. Wing Commander, actually,” said Roger. “But it doesn’t matter at all.” He was longing to get away from all this, to be alone.
“We live in London,” volunteered Ann, “although our house was damaged in the blitz so we had to evacuate for a while. Most of us were in school some of the time, in Dorset.”
“I suppose this will be your home now?” asked Roger.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Ann in surprise. “Daddy has just got a ship of his own. I am sure Mummy would rather stay in London. It is… was… Jon’s house, not ours.”
“But…” Roger stopped himself saying anything else. They would find out soon enough, and it was no business of his anyway. Not any more.