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Olive hurried down the Rectory drive, murmuring soft invective. No-one could be blamed, and it was natural that Mr Straike should be very much upset and embarrassed, while Canon Rosslow had showed himself admirable in the support he offered his old friend. She remembered the gentle decision with which the canon’s plump, sallow hand had moved to clasp the vicar’s rawboned one and found herself almost unbearably touched. But it soon became clear that, unchecked, their stifled distress and restrained speculation would detain her beyond the hour at which some salvage of everyone’s dignity was possible. In the end, hearing the clock strike the quarter of an hour she realised must be not nine but ten, she’d had to be very curt and see herself out. And as for―she stopped for a moment to master exasperation―well, it was just like Lucy; she probably quite seriously believed that she was being considerate in avoiding to the very last moment an unpleasant confrontation, then absenting herself from the crisis. But nor was it a feint, a bid for attention: she had left sufficient assurance that she was safe and in her right mind, insufficient information and time to be found and coaxed home.

The heel of Olive’s shoe caught in a cavity that had once held the drop-bolt of a gate; feeling the unaccommodated shock of infant tumbles, she flew forward onto the asphalt pavement.

‘Damn, blow, blast and bloody hell.’ She blinked away furious tears to the horrified recognition that she was not alone. The dark confusion in her peripheral vision resolved itself into a serge forearm, two rings of wavy braid and a gloved hand.

‘Are you all right?’ It was a young man who spoke, clear and pleasant.

‘Yes―oh, yes, I’m quite. excuse me―I’m sorry―please don’t―you mustn’t―please don’t go to any trouble―’ She tried to push herself to her feet and found her knees both delinquent and sore. She gasped.

‘I’m not. Take my hand.’ The voice was of the sort to quash confusion and impel compliance.

He helped her up with a small inarticulate sound, an indrawn breath and click; his left arm braced lightly behind her shoulders. She was reminded, despite the lieutenant’s rings and the educated accent, of the farrier in the village of her girlhood, who was said to know the cure for farcy and had returned mute and paralysed from Arras.

She straightened her hat; of practical design and pinned securely, it had only dropped down a little into her eyes. But her stockings were torn and she had unquestionably thrown a shoe. She hid her stockinged foot behind her calf and dusted her gritty hands against her coat. Her handbag hadn’t fallen far, and was, luckily, at her side. Her blazing cheeks were not, she realised, going to fade before courtesy demanded she express some word of thanks, so she did so immediately and less graciously than she would have liked, sounding unsteady and defiant. He stepped back. His physique was the opposite of a farrier’s: medium height, lean and narrow.

‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘No pain in your shoulders, anything of that sort?’ He gestured quickly between his own. ‘Astonishingly easy to fracture a collarbone like that. Done it myself, coming out of a bunk on a forty-degree roll.’ His face, shadowed beneath his cap, looked dimly familiar, as if she had seen it before in the monochrome of a photograph rather than in life: she quickly reviewed her acquaintance for sons, sons-in-law, and nephews in the RNVR and drew a blank.

‘No,’ she said, looking around, ‘just grazed hands and knees. And my shoe―there, just to your left. Would you mind?’

He bent to retrieve it with a curiously genteel pinch of pinky and thumb, transferring it awkwardly to his other hand before giving it to her. ‘Heel’s broken, I’m afraid. Look, wait here. My car’s parked just up the road. I’ll run you home.’

‘No―please―I can snap it off and walk―’

But he had already turned to go. Damn all men, she thought, wrenching the court shoe in her hand, they never considered that a woman, especially if she was older than thirty, might have her own affairs to attend to. Any time that she gained from the lift would be swallowed in a wrangle over a hospitable cup of tea―he might even accept, and Laurie would have some time ago got up and found both her note and his mother’s letter: managing that was going to be difficult enough without the presence of a maritime stranger. Perhaps she had done the wrong thing in going first to the Rectory, but surely, in a situation like this, a bridegroom took precedence. And though it was past eight by the time she had verified that Lucy really had gone, why, and with whom, she had lacked the heart to shake Laurie from a troubled sleep that looked recently hard-won.

The car pulled up, unwieldy with the sportif accoutrements of fifteen years ago. She smiled, reminded of Esther Kimball’s daughter, who before the war used sometimes to drive her to town in a similarly eccentric conveyance. She was in the WAAF now. He leaned over to open the passenger door for her, with the quick grin he might give a girl his own age. Two women with shopping baskets, coming round the corner, spared the scene some idle curiosity. Olive damned them too. She was not, she reflected ruefully, displaying an overplus of Christian charity this morning.

‘It’s really only a few hundred yards,’ she said when she’d settled in and closed the door, ‘yes, straight on―I could have walked, honestly.’

‘I’ve about three hours to kill. I’ve never driven here before, and I was doing it on the instructions of a man who’d only come by train and a road atlas circa 1928 with some of the more relevant pages missing. So I left myself plenty of time to get lost, and if you do that, you don’t go wrong once. Fourth law of thermodynamics in reverse.’

‘I beg your pardon―fourth―?’ She held her hat against what felt like unnecessarily rapid acceleration.

‘If it can go wrong, it will.’

That was apter than he knew, she thought, and felt a meaning sigh escape her. ‘Oh, I see,’ she added quickly. ‘isn’t that so very true. I always say to my friend Mrs―oh, goodness, right, right, right here―it’s rather concealed―’

The left-hand side of his body, and the air around it for about six inches, went rigid with the effort of suppression. She was a very silly old woman, she supposed, not to be able to direct someone on a three-quarter-mile journey, but there was no need for that. Then, instinctively following with her eye the line of maximum tension down to the gear lever, she saw why, and he, to her mortification, saw her make sense of the crude, inert padding.

‘One or two rough Channel crossings, this summer,’ he said conversationally. His face was empty, uncannily neutral, like a mime’s before he begins his act.

‘Oh―my cous―’ and stopped short, suddenly persuaded that to match what was obviously a habitual laconism, particularly with another’s experience, was the very worst of form. But what was one to say―thank him for his sacrifice? It seemed at once excessive and inadequate; if he were in the least like Laurie, he would hate anything that implied commiseration, let alone pity. ‘I mean―coming up next’s a left,’ she corrected, ‘just after Joyce’s farm. I’m sorry, I should have given you more notice.’

‘Thank you.’

The small silence that followed returned her to the matter of urgent concern. Canon Rosslow had undertaken to deal with the church personnel and wire or telephone those members of the Straike party who might still be intercepted, but to her fell the same disproportion of duty that always attended the bride’s friends, just with no promise of happiness or pleasure at the end of it. The family―thank goodness they were few―the London contingent, the cars, the caterers, the waiters, the wine-merchant, the baker, the county paper was sending a photographer, the parishioners―well, one word in Mrs Joyce’s ear was better than the Home Service. But she should, for Lucy’s sake, try to speak to as many people as she could in person, to stop things getting lurid―and Laurie’s. She hoped he had not taken one of his fits of wild initiative. He was usually so steady and sensible; but his mother’s impending marriage had rattled him to an unforeseen degree―he was quite incapable of hiding it, poor boy―and now for it all to be off―well. Olive remembered a wedding she too had devoutly wished would not take place, twenty-five years ago. She had not had her wish, precisely: it had been far worse than that, settling itself in the way she’d been afraid of from the start, and for fear of betraying herself she had scanted the friendship and consolation due a pregnant widow―no, but she mustn’t think of Margery now, she mustn’t.

‘Turn down this lane, and you can pull over just―the house with the spruce―oh, no!’

There was a van already pulled up outside the gate. One rear door was open, revealing wooden shelves and crates; the closed one read Wm. DA | CATE | FOR ALL OC | CHURC | BEACON | BU. From behind the open door emerged a middle-aged man in a brown coat in agitated colloquy with Laurie, whose expression was one of haggard, bewildered patience: the look of someone who expects muddle but has not quite accommodated himself to being so often powerless to straighten it out. His face was very pale; against the white sky of a dull late-autumn morning, his hair looked redder than it had since he was quite a little boy.

‘But―damn it,’ said the lieutenant, ‘that’s my―that’s the man I came here to meet.’ He raised the handbrake with a sharp jerk and turned to her. ‘You’re not his―? Mrs Odell?’

‘Good gracious, no; I’m not actually even his real aunt.’ The opacity of this statement provoked an intent look, such as tolerant but restless people give those whom they suspect of wasting their time, and recognition instantly dawned. She raised her hands to both cheeks and let out a little cry. ‘But I couldn’t think where I’d seen you! Now I know! You’re the boy in the photograph!’

‘Am I?’ he said, as if contemplating some technical problem, the solution of which would bring a sense of personal as well as professional achievement. ‘Am I really?’

*

The three of them surveyed the kitchen table, now occupied by round serving platters of bread-and-margarine, sandwiches and savouries, the sponge fingers and plain biscuits that were to supplement the small wedding-cake.

‘It was the most incredible snarl-up. I thought I was perfectly clear on the telephone that it was a cancellation, but I somehow gave them to understand we wanted the food delivered here and not to the parish hall. And there was some very complicated reason why he couldn’t just take it away again. Reminded me of the Army.’

‘Well,’ Olive ventured, ‘before the war there would have been a lot more of it to cope with.’

‘But one couldn’t actually go to prison for throwing it away,’ Laurie added, with a hard look at some curry puffs.

‘Laurie! It would be a sin.’

‘I don’t mean it, for God’s sake. We’ll manage somehow.’ He stared through the open kitchen door at the recess under the stairs. ‘Why couldn’t she―I asked her outright, more than once.’

‘I wonder,’ said Mr Lanyon, with the forestalling air of someone who means to keep a fractious party light, ‘where they’ll think to deliver the waiters.’

Laurie seemed to come to. ‘I sent a written message with the driver as well as telephoning. If that doesn’t get through nothing will. She―she left a guest list tucked into the address book: I’ve got hold of some of our lot who are on the telephone, but Trunks takes such an age, and half the time you get disconnected.’ He began, defeatedly, to enumerate the successful telephone calls.

A knock at the door brought Mrs Joyce, her whole demeanour oscillating fantastically between delight, self-censure and concern. So, it’s begun, Olive thought, and saw the same sentiment reflected in Laurie’s face.

No, he explained, Mother wasn’t ill. She’d become overwhelmed at the last minute: all the changes, the upheavals of the last months had unsettled her more than (he thought) she knew, and she couldn’t for the moment see herself equal to a lifelong promise. She had gone to stay with a schoolfriend in Abingdon. He didn’t know anything about that, but certainly she had come to confide in Hilda Timmings: she said as much in her letters, how helpful she had been, a rock of good sense. No, why should he have seen Mrs Timmings this morning? Mother had said, as a matter of fact, that she wouldn’t be here, that she was to attend the wedding as a guest, not as help.

How could Lucy do this to him, thought Olive: she must have known he would permit no-one else to take the strain. Something made her glance over at his friend, who had retreated towards the scullery door to smoke; she caught the tail-end of a sentimental protectiveness. The name of Lanyon had barely been off Laurie’s lips for two years together, but that, she had assumed, was hero-worship, and the abrupt cessation of all mention of it part of the thorny progress towards manhood: now she wondered if it were quite that simple and ordinary, and felt shy of the scrap of schoolgirl argot she had let fall when she saw the photograph last night.

‘―it was just that Mrs Bromelow did say that Hilda came by yesterday afternoon and took back Billy Timmings’ Triumph―they’ve been keeping it in their barn for him since he joined up―and the sidecar. And no-one seems to have seen her since.’

Olive could see Laurie calculating the amount of insult he could reasonably absorb before recoiling with formal hostility, and found herself reminded of his father, during the dreadful business in Ireland especially. But Michael’s social resources were profound, even when he had taken a drink or two more than he should: he could be genial, to the point of apparent servility, to John Bull for hours before his brows knitted and he began to lay about him. Laurie’s reserves were almost as shallow as his mother’s.

‘We could,’ she interjected brightly, ‘have made good use of someone from the village. To help us with all this―there was a mix-up with the caterers.’

Perhaps it was the wrong thing to say; neither of the men seemed to appreciate it, and Mrs Joyce adjusted her embonpoint in frank affront. But at that moment the knocker chapped again. Olive was on her feet before she considered that Laurie might appreciate a respite, even one which had humiliating expository dialogue at the end of it.

These were wedding guests: an elderly couple, the husband rather deaf; Olive fancied that he had been Raymond’s godfather, but she couldn’t be sure. Laurie followed her out into the hall: due amazement was expressed that a scant decade could serve to transform a boy in his last year of private school into an NCO awaiting discharge (wounds). Returning to the kitchen, she heard Laurie bellow at artillery-barrage volume, ‘―well, one takes the most unaccountable positions at fifteen―but that isn’t the part of it I’d change, given the chance―’

Mr Lanyon, whose posture in the kitchen chair vacated by Laurie combined propriety and proprietorship in very interesting proportions, was saying, ‘―oh, I don’t think so, do you? I was best man a few years ago for a fellow who should have listened to his girl’s cold feet if not his own. They’re still making at least four people miserable in Bombay, as far as I know―’

It would not be true to say that Mrs Joyce had grown suddenly jovial, for people who do not practise lenity miss it at such moments, and it inhibits them, but she relaxed, and sampled a sausage roll. Olive considered that the kitchen was in capable hands for the moment, and darted back toward the drawing-room.

The next to arrive were Mrs Colefax and Miss Ramsey, aunt and niece; their motive, uncertainly poised between vengeance and vindication, proved quickly susceptible to the offer of the better part of the buffet to enliven that evening’s Guides meeting; Mr Lanyon disappeared with the younger lady to deliver it to safekeeping, while more people, misinformed or mischievous, arrived at the front door. Olive checked on Laurie in the drawing room, but he seemed to be bearing up better under the fifth iteration of the narrative than the first. She made tea and perambulated with biscuits. The telephone rang: it was a wire. She took it down: Arrived safe. Please do not try to fetch me away. Will visit hospital soonest to talk re house and so on. Should never do anything to hurt you and you am sure same. Do not worry. Love Mother.

Olive took Laurie into the empty kitchen to see it: he read it with a cold, pinched look on his face, then took out a packet of cigarettes, offered it carelessly.

‘Do you, ever?’

‘Only on my days out in town.’

He took two, lit them together as if he were someone in the pictures, and gave her one.

‘Queer, really. I never even thought of going to look for her. But it was the first thing Ralph asked, when you were upstairs, changing your shoes. He was right, it would be quite easy to find the place.’

‘She’s not a runaway child,’ said Olive, wondering if this were true.

‘No.’ Laurie gripped the edge of the table. ‘Way I look at it is―’ Lucy deplored the fragments of costermonger phraseology that had accompanied Laurie home on embarkation leave; Olive welcomed them, recognising that they constituted a pidgin for the discussion of whatever passed, in the Army, for emotional life. ‘She has somebody there, and there’s no future in anyone trying to tear her away. She has to work it through for herself.’

You’re not just anyone, though―you―she―’

‘Not even the person one cares most for in the world should interfere,’ he interrupted. ‘Especially not him. Because he’s so very likely to succeed.’ This generalisation sounded so very peculiar that Olive instinctively let the subject drop.

At some point between the advent of the sexton, not altogether the better for drink and harbouring innumerable grievances that turned out, on translation, to be contra Straike, and the return of Mr Lanyon, who had exchanged Miss Ramsey and two dozens each of sponge fingers and paste sandwiches for a rakishly pretty Wren and a bottle of whisky, the first champagne cork popped. Olive supposed Laurie must have done it. An excess of convention, she thought, was more vulgar than none, and when the glasses were passed, accepted one. The Wren, it transpired, was from the groom’s side: she thought she had met Mr Straike once, when she was quite a little girl― ‘daresay you know the type, sir, you must have had some salty old so-and-sos to serve under in your time.’

‘About the average number,’ Mr Lanyon murmured. ‘One tries to stay on top.’

She made a playful dodge at his forearm―the left, and Olive noticed, if the girl did not, his conscious restraint of the impulse to move his hand out of sight.

‘You dreadful thing. I just about remember a tall, rather high-coloured man,’ she went on, ‘who always seemed to be exhorting you towards something terrifically strenuous in the middle distance.’

‘That’s him,’ Laurie said, looking past her at Mr Lanyon, ‘what a memory you must have for faces.’

‘Pattern recognition, they call it,’ responding with poised condescension to his tone, not his words. ‘It’s quite important in my work. Anyway, here I am, on my own because my stepfather, he’s a fearful old hypochondriac really, had one of his turns last night. I went up to the Rectory when my train got in and got a rebuff from the housekeeper that you just wouldn’t believe. I was sure at first I had the wrong day, but I hadn't, so I thought, oh hell―’ she looked at Olive defiantly, ‘because there wasn’t another train for yonks, absolutely no-one around, and it was starting to drizzle a bit, so I strolled down into the village and mercifully there’s that sweet little coaching inn―and I thought I’d slip in for a quick one. I shouldn’t normally, but it was a fix, and an hotel’s always all right, don’t you think? And who should be there at the bar but Ralph Lanyon―’

That gentleman removed the cigarette from his lips in a gesture of chivalrous protest.

‘Of course, we hadn’t actually met before exactly, but we’ve bags of acquaintance in common―’

‘Wouldn’t want to overburden you in the slightest,’ Laurie said pleasantly, stepping carefully sideways to close shoulders with his friend, ‘but let me introduce you to Mrs Elliot: her house is just by the station. She’s sending for her car―’

Olive thought it was high time a start was made on the washing-up, but retreating, she caught Mr Lanyon’s apology. ‘Believe me, I had no idea who she was―limpet's not the word―'

‘No―it’s all right. Nous sommes les déracinés, tous déracinés―’

‘I’m afraid I don’t―’

‘It’s not a quotation. Or―rather, a man in the EMS hospital. He died, two nights before I―It doesn’t matter―’

‘Oh, Spuddy.’

For about a quarter of an hour, everything grew improbably hectic and noisy: one of the air-twist glasses met its end against the hearth―how little of the necessary packing Lucy had done, Olive reflected, she really should have seen something was amiss as soon as she arrived yesterday―Mr Lanyon, smiling and resolute, ushered the recalcitrant sexton to the gate; Olive shivered slightly, remembering the smooth, easy flexion of wrist and elbow that had all but lifted her ten stone off the ground.

Suddenly they began to disappear; in what seemed like no time the house was empty of all but the washing-up and Laurie. She left him lying face down on the divan, for some reason remembering something Michael had told her about his schooldays: They knew little else, but the Christian Brothers knew how to thrash. I always went asleep after, right there in my desk. There had, at the height of this inverted little reception, perhaps been twenty people in the house, but it was too many, all the same, poor boy, too many people.

*

‘Is he all right?’

Mr Lanyon nodded. ‘As rain. Just exhausted. As you must be, Miss Lethbridge.’

‘Me? No―it’s what I was put on earth for. And Olive, please.’

‘Thank you. For everything.’

He scanned the kitchen doubtfully, as if a squall might blow up. She raised the teapot in query. He shook his head in faint, grimacing alarm.

‘No, thanks.’

‘Whisky, then.’

‘I’ll get my own.’

Returning to his chair, he began uncertainly, ‘It was all rather unconventional, I daresay, but it answered something instinctual in people.’

'Then at the balance let's be mute,' she suggested,

We never can adjust it;
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.


Something like that?’

‘Exactly like that.’ He raised his drink in cordial salutation; shyly, she mirrored the action. ‘Happy days. I’ve been to too many parties that hope to turn drink and debauchery back into glee and social life to decry the basically healthy sort. So, what goes on now?’

‘The house would have been Laurie’s―is his. But, you know―if―if. His mother’s interest in it was for life, or until she remarried. She’d secured tenants―so―’

‘Oh God. Matthew 6:34, and get another bloody round in. I say―sorry.’

‘I wouldn’t have had you down as the sort of man who had stock ideas about old maids.’

‘I don’t―well, I don’t know very many. Not very many female ones.’

‘I hope you’re not expecting me to take that as a compliment, Ralph.’

Whatever had caused the disinhibition―not drink, certainly, for she had taken all of two sips of champagne before her glass had vanished in that mysterious way they had at afternoon gatherings; perhaps it was just the smoky, dull evening drawing in―it was the right thing to say. She saw him for a moment as a schoolboy; not the Olympian that Laurie had admired, but a lowly, friendless fag.

He turned the glass in his finely-made right hand. ‘No―’ he said slowly, ‘I don’t think either of us has much use for raillery, in that particular sense.’

‘That's not quite what I meant. But I think we understand each other nonetheless, and we have a shared concern, don't we? And that's the more important thing. My train is the four-forty. I would be ever so very grateful for a lift to the station.’

‘Of course.’ He paused, then went on with bleak decision, ‘but are you sure you don’t want to stay the night? He―he might be expecting you to.’

‘Oh no. The last thing he needs is a reminder of all this. He must have someone who is going to make him forget all about it.’

He nodded, touching his collar with a quick, automatic movement. Despite the day's pressures, which had been in their way extraordinary, and his means of dealing with them, which was clearly customary, he was still very neat and crisp; on the whole, she approved.

‘Now,’ she said, settling her empty teacup on the saucer, ‘You can help me put up the blackout before we leave.’