The watercolour of St Martins on the wall above the telephone table had been painted by Frances Kilworth’s younger son Tony just before he left art school, and given to her four years ago on her fiftieth birthday. She looked pensively at it as she spoke.
‘Yes, of course I’ll be there, Natasha.’ She raised her voice slightly. At ninety-four her grandmother’s hearing was remarkable, but she had never been at ease on the telephone.
‘I’m driving down very early, before the traffic builds up on the M4. Giles still isn’t quite sure whether he can make it. Rehearsal in the morning. They’re filming a second series of his sitcom – the one that’s doing so well.’
Natasha Devereux gave a snort down the telephone, which might have been a suppressed laugh. Probably not a favourable one.
‘Can we expect him later, then, doushenka?’
‘He’s going to try to come down after lunch. That would mean he could manage most of the day.’ Frances recognised a familiar note in her voice, at once apologetic and pleading. It often surfaced when she spoke of her husband to Natasha. She despised herself for it.
‘Drive carefully,’ said Natasha automatically before ringing off, as if Frances were still a teenager, dashing about the Herefordshire lanes in her beloved soft-top MG. Frances sighed. Gone. Long gone. Vanished with that younger self, who now seemed as remote as a stranger.
Frances stood for a moment with her hand still on the telephone. The watercolour constantly filled her afresh with delight. Tony had managed to catch the endearing atmosphere of the place – the jumble of styles, from the mediaeval tower and the half-timbered sixteenth-century main house to the elegant Georgian frontage and orangery (now dilapidated), added when the family had aspired to gentility in the mid-eighteenth century. By showing it from an unusual angle he had been able to reveal its haphazard chronology. The horseshoe formed by the house and stableyard was flung round like the rough embrace of the military cloak St Martin himself had wrapped around the shivering beggar. In the right foreground (slightly shifted by artistic licence, she thought) was the great copper beech, planted in 1790 and recorded in the estate book of the period. Its partner, mirroring it across the lawn, had begun to rot in the sixties and had come down in a storm seven years ago. The surviving tree was the first they had learned to climb, she and her brother Hugh, soon after their mother had brought them to St Martins to escape the blitz.
Hugh will never find me here, thinks Frances, crouching under the rhododendrons. She holds her breath. He is ranging about the lawn, poking at shrubs with a stick, peering down the well that Mummy is always so fussed about. Then he seems to lose interest. He throws down his stick and starts to climb the copper beech. He jumps and catches hold of one of the lower branches, then walks his feet up the trunk and claws at the branch until he gets his tummy over it. Soon she can see nothing of him but the shaking of the branches. Furious, she crawls out from under the rhododendrons and runs across the lawn.
‘You’re supposed to be finding me!’ she wails.
He drops neatly from the tree beside her, and grabs her arm.
‘It’s not fair!’
She hits him.
Soon they are rolling over and over amongst the dead leaves under the tree, punching each other until they are tired.
Later, when they are lying on their backs, gazing up through the branches at the patchwork of purple leaves and blue sky, she complains again.
‘You are a beast. It wasn’t fair.’
He rolls over on to his stomach and grins to himself.
The morning of Saturday, 11 June, 1994, dawned milky white as Frances joined the M4 at Junction 10. The road stretched westwards ahead of her, almost empty. In three hours’ time the tarmac would be hot with the friction of the hundreds of tyres rolling over it, the trees in the adjacent fields shaking with the thunder of lorries pounding to and from London.
Now she could see a kestrel hovering lazily overhead – not three miles from Reading. She reached up and wound back the sunroof, then pressed the buttons to open both front windows fully. Her sensible Cavalier hatchback could never rival the excitement of her old MG, but she still drove in a wild tangle of air when she was alone. Giles objected peevishly when he travelled with her, closing windows, hunching down with his coat collar turned up when she refused to turn on the heating, ostentatiously coughing into his handkerchief with unspoken reproach: My voice has to be cherished, I need to be cosseted, my looks and my voice are my fortune.
She shook herself in irritation. No need to think about Giles just yet. She would reach St Martins in time for breakfast. Probably before the children had even woken up. Yesterday afternoon Tony had collected Katya after school, on his way from London, and driven her down to Herefordshire; Lisa and Paul had planned to drive over from Worcester during the evening. It was only a month till the baby was due, but Lisa had insisted that she could not possibly miss the party.
‘Not come to St Martins’ fiftieth anniversary, Mum? I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Anyway, Natasha would never forgive me.’
Frances had made protesting noises down the phone.
‘If anything disastrous should happen,’ Lisa said stoutly, ‘Paul can always run me into the hospital in Hereford. It only takes twenty minutes. But I’m fine, really. Never felt better.’
This was not strictly true, but for Lisa Fenway the birth of her first child and Natasha’s party for the fiftieth anniversary of the St Martins community had become somehow entangled in her mind. She had an odd, superstitious belief – which she would have admitted to no one, not even Paul – that if she did not go to the party something dreadful would happen to the baby. Which was idiotic of her, as she knew very well.
Frances switched on the car radio, tuning in to Classic FM. It offended her by playing only fragments, never completing a piece, but it provided an agreeable and undemanding background to the drive. She had always preferred driving alone, but since her marriage it was a pleasure she had rarely been able to enjoy. For years there had been the demands of others, creating tensions, making the metal and glass box into a prison. First Giles. In those days (before he had lost his licence) insisting on driving, though he was not nearly as good a driver as she was. Then Anya, fretting in her carrycot, the back seat around her wedged with carrier bags full of nappies and baby powder and made-up bottles of formula. Then Nicholas and Tony and Lisa. All of them quarrelling, wanting to stop, demanding to be sick or to go to the loo, and being pacified with chocolate by Giles, who laughed at Frances’s rules about no sweets between meals.
Then, much later, when Anya and Nicholas were almost grown-up and Tony and Lisa were bored and aggressive teenagers, it started all over again with Katya.
I’m too old for this, Frances had thought, assembling a new set of baby paraphernalia, alien in design and purpose from the objects that had cluttered her early motherhood.
Tony and Lisa had complained and bickered about the space in the car being encroached upon by the new baby. Who – then – had been angelic. Quiet and good, with a smile to melt hearts. But her brother and sister had been unmoved.
‘Honestly,’ she had overheard Lisa saying to Tony. ‘At their age. I think it’s disgusting.’
Tony had snickered. ‘Just Dad trying to prove he’s still virile. Or Mum trying to stop him straying.’
Giles cried, that time, in the autumn of 1980. Tears, of course, came easily to him. They were one of his professional skills. No more to be trusted than his charm, once so enchanting.
‘I swear to you, Frances,’ he said brokenly, burying his face in her breast. ‘You are the only woman I love. That little bint who’s been in the Noel Coward with me – honestly, I was just giving the kid a bit of fun, showing her the sights, introducing her to some useful people.’
He heaved himself up, glowering. Frances noticed that he was beginning to thicken about the waist.
‘How dare she ring you up like that! Who does she think she is?’ he demanded crossly.
Ah yes, this is the real Giles. His sense of dignity is offended. Little Ms Bootsie Fabersham (what a ridiculous name) is finished. She has not played the game by his rules. She has invaded his bolt-hole, his private place, my home.
Her eye was caught briefly by a cool still life painted by Natasha and hanging on the bedroom wall. It was a study in yellows and greens, with a shaft of sunlight falling diagonally across a table.
He kissed her hair, stroked her.
Why don’t I have the strength to throw him out of my bed, out of my life? Frances asked herself resentfully, knowing that she would not, feeling herself melt. Pitying him, with his injured pride.
She had not taken the pill for months. Until now there had been no need. She was not really worried. After all, she told herself, I am forty. Nothing can possibly happen after just once. But it did. And the result was Katya. A beautiful baby. Perfect in every way.
And three months before her birth, Giles was photographed with his latest girlfriend, attending the première of a film in which he had played a minor role.
In the bedroom she liked best at St Martins – a queer, lopsided space up under the mediaeval roof beams – Katya Kilworth stirred and pushed back the duvet, but did not wake. Her clothes were scattered all over the floor, a heap of black – skirts and sleeveless tunics and baggy jeans and boy’s football boots. In bed she wore a grandad woollen vest with buttoned neck and long sleeves. It sported a wartime utility label in the back, which was currently considered by Katya’s peers to be cool. She had bought it in the local Oxfam shop for 50p. After she had worn it for an hour or so, it developed a curious smell – reminiscent of wet dog. It was scratchy and too hot, but she had bought it to annoy her mother and so felt obliged to wear it.
Irritably she half woke, threw the duvet off the bed entirely, then stripped off the woollen vest and flung it across the room. The pale light of early morning fell on her from the uncurtained window, and she looked at herself in disgust, loathing her body. She threw herself on to her face, clutching a pillow in her arms and remembering, as she drifted back into sleep, her balding teddy bear. She kept it hidden at St Martins, to avoid the shame of Mum turning it up in Reading. Tomorrow she would rescue Ted and bring him back to her bed. No one disturbed your privacy at St Martins. Which was odd, really.
Two floors below, Natasha Devereux lay awake on her high, severe, four-poster bed. She slept very little these days. Not profound sleep. On the other hand, she dozed frequently. During the day, sitting in her favourite high-backed chair in the window bay of the drawing room, she would be dozing and yet at the same time aware, in some part of her mind, that she was still present in the room. So that Irina or Mabel, coming in to urge unwanted cups of tea on her, would start to tiptoe out again – only to be confronted with her disconcertingly sharp eyes. Sometimes they manoeuvred William into the chair opposite, where he would sit, quiet and biddable as a well trained dog. My son-in-law, since his stroke, looks older than I do myself, thought Natasha a little complacently. Even though he is seventeen years younger.
The white voile bed curtains stirred and billowed in the breeze from the windows. She had caught from her English husband the habit of leaving the windows open at night, except in the most severe weather.
‘Leave the windows open, Edmund dousha moya?’ she had exclaimed, scandalised, the first time they had slept together, that joyful night in Paris, the spring after the Great War. ‘The night air is poisonsome, everyone knows this.’
‘Poisonous, my darling, not poisonsome,’ he said, laughing, touching her lips with the tip of his finger. ‘And that is foolish nonsense taught you by your Nianyushka. I have slept with the windows open all my life, and look at me!’
And she had looked at him. He still wore uniform. It was not so splendid as the Russian uniforms of her childhood, but the sober, well tailored lines defined the shape of him, filling her with longing. He started to undress, exposing the scar on his chest that he had earned at Passchendaele, still pink and vulnerable. She began to kiss it.
Now, lying in the bed at St Martins, she was filled with wonder that she could have survived this last half-century without him, after a second war, nearing its end, had taken from her the man the first war had brought to her. It seemed inconceivable – such a gulf of time. By tenuous links her thoughts slid to Anya, her troubled eldest great-granddaughter. At thirty-four, thinking her life was over. Anya was only just beginning.
She keeps too much to herself, thought Natasha. What is going on in that tight, well controlled brain of hers? Too much she thinks of things, of ideas, of theories. All beautifully categorised and indexed and filed. She never speaks of the feelings. Irina, now, my so-disappointing daughter, she speaks of feelings all the time, her own feelings. Always they are hurt or offended in some way. But Anya – no, she is like Edmund, very British. Does she even speak of feelings with this man of hers, whom she is so reluctant to bring to my party?
In the tiny bed-sit in North Oxford, which was all she could possibly afford – no, more than she could afford – Anya Kilworth lay very straight on her back under a single plain white sheet. She was not asleep. Probably she had not slept all night. She loved this room, especially when the trees were in leaf. Without lifting her head from the pillow she could look out through the uncurtained window at a rolling seascape of treetops, just now heaving gently in the light summer wind. The spiky candelabra of horse chestnuts, pink and white, caressed the looser, wilder, yellow cascades tumbling from the laburnums.
The back garden of this house – divided for many years amongst a shifting population of students, graduates and university hangers-on – was in a state of rampant neglect. The laburnums had seeded themselves, and were scattered about in every size from finger length to a height of twenty feet or more. If you ventured into the garden you had to fight your way through an undergrowth of cleavers and bindweed and ground elder, clawing at you to waist height. There were tunnels where the secret cats of North Oxford patrolled on their nightly business and at the far end, beneath the crumbling garden wall of brick, lay the remains of an asparagus bed, from which Anya had been able to pick a few shoots last week when Spiro came to dinner.
It had been meant as a reconciliation. They would have a pleasant, relaxed meal and talk about neutral subjects. Make a fresh start. But somehow it had gone wrong. They started to quarrel, and then they were shouting at each other. To her horror, Anya heard herself telling him to leave. It seemed to be some other person speaking – a shrewish woman with a harsh, self-righteous voice. She did not want him to go, and had been cold with shock ever since.
She had seen him once, two days ago, in the Bodleian. They had nodded at each other and walked on without speaking. He was supposed to be coming with her to St Martins today. A month ago at least, they had arranged to meet at the station, in time for the Hereford train. Should she ring him to remind him? No, it would be too humiliating. What if he did not turn up at the station? Should she wait? He had the infuriating Greek habit of indifference towards time. If you missed a train, so what? Another one would come, today, tomorrow.
I wish I could talk all this through with someone, thought Anya. Though I know I’m not the kind of person who talks about such things. I wish I were the sort of daughter who can talk to her mother, the way Lisa talks to Mum. Though Mum is hardly the best person to give advice. Granny Irina is useless. Once, I might have gone to Natasha, but she is getting so old now, and frail. I can’t burden her. And although I have lots of acquaintances – colleagues, people I go to pubs with – I don’t really have any close friends. Mum would at least understand the dilemma I’m confronted with.
Anya smiled a little bitterly, flung herself crossly on her side and looked at the clock. God, it was still only six.
Frances Kilworth stopped once only on her journey. Not because she needed petrol, but because she liked to get out and stretch and view the countryside away from the tunnel-like motorway with its monotonous scenery. She had turned off the M4 at Junction 15, to take a shortcut cross-country, instead of following it the long way round to the M5. Giles always wanted to keep to the motorways. It confirmed his perception of himself as busy and sought-after, dashing about the country on the blue lines radiating out from London. It was the source of one of the many irritations between them that Frances much preferred the adventure of unknown country roads. Little hidden villages, valleys concealed from the major highways by enfolding hills, were to her an enrichment of the experience of travelling. She had never been able to make him see that her cross-country routes often shortened the journey as well as making it less tiring.
‘You’re always getting stuck behind some damn tractor thing,’ he would complain, impervious to the fact that tractors usually turned off the road within a quarter of a mile or so, while tailbacks on the motorways moved far slower and stretched out for interminable miles. He almost appeared to enjoy them, drumming on the dashboard with his fingers, exchanging exaggerated, comical faces of woe with fellow sufferers in the cars around them.
In the same way he seemed tied to the crowds and traffic of London by an umbilical cord of emotional needs. The furthest he had been prepared to move, when they had felt they could buy a house thirty years ago, was to Reading. This was not Frances’s idea of the country, but she had still been in love with him then and the house would do for a few years, till they could afford something better. But that had been, as it turned out, one of their most prosperous periods. Giles had secured his first West End part, in a lightweight play that for some inexplicable reason ran and ran, so that, together with the tiny bits of money she had been carefully putting aside for five years, they were able to pay in full the £4,000 the house had cost. (No right-minded building society would have given an actor a mortgage.) Frances managed to find some work translating correspondence for a local firm exporting to Italy, which she did while Anya was at her morning play group and Nicky took a nap. The work was badly paid, but the money covered their modest daily spending needs, with a little scrimping and saving.
‘A hundred and ninety thousand pounds!’ she had repeated to the keen new man in the insurance office last week.
‘Oh yes, Mrs Kilworth,’ he assured her. ‘It must be worth at least that, even with the present difficulties in the housing market. Five years ago it was probably worth well over 200 K. You really must not under-insure. If you had a fire . . .’
She found it difficult to attend to him. When they had bought it, the house had overlooked fields at the back, giving at least an illusion of the country. But in the early eighties new housing developments had begun to encroach on them, nearer and nearer. Now the view from the main bedroom and the kitchen below it – a view once moving in a cycle through the colours of the agricultural year, and framed by willows along a stream – had been replaced by the severe backs of identical houses, row upon row, whose windows were too small and whose roofs were too shallow. The stream had been culverted, and the willows cut down – one agonising afternoon – by an indifferent man with a chain-saw.
This leap in monetary value was ludicrous, almost obscene. Because the house was much nastier now than when they had bought it. And the streets were no longer safe. When Anya and Nicky were small, she had never worried about them playing with their friends up and down the road, or on the small area of grass around which the houses were grouped. Now, whenever Katya was just a little late from school she would begin to worry.
After Junction 15 she bypassed Swindon and headed for Cirencester on the A419. She thought at first that she had missed the lay-by where she wanted to stop, but spotted it at last and pulled in. It was disconcerting not to find it where she had expected it to be.
I know this road so well, I could drive it with my eyes shut, she thought. But I suppose it must be three months since I was last down at St Martins. What can I have been doing with myself all that time?
She got out, stretching slowly and luxuriously, like a cat. Then she locked the car. And not long ago I would not have done that, she thought. She pushed through the dusty, sickly-looking bushes that edged the lay-by and climbed the slight rise beyond. North and west of her the soft lines of the Cotswolds rose, looking larger than they really were in the horizontal light of early morning which dramatised their contours.
’I'm going to find some real mountains to climb,’ Hugh said.
They were eating a clotted cream tea in one of the golden Cotswold villages, sitting outside a cottage in the unexpected sunshine of July, 1958. Their bicycles were propped against the low garden wall, the over-full saddle bags bulging into the hollyhocks and foxgloves.
She was only half listening to him. It was, although they did not know it then, their last cycling holiday together. Since their early teens they had taken cycle trips every Easter and summer, even after Frances’s acquisition of the MG. Last night they had stayed at the youth hostel in Gloucester. They planned to make their way through the Cotswold lanes at a leisurely pace, then go on to Stratford and buy standing-room tickets for whatever play was showing. The tickets cost only half a crown, and sometimes the usherettes would show you to an unoccupied seat at the first interval. Once, they had found themselves in the front row of the dress circle.
‘There’s a field trip going out to Kashmir. I’m going to try to stay on afterwards and do some real climbing after the others come back.’
‘Won’t it be frightfully expensive?’
‘I’m going to use my prize money, and Natasha said she would help. Mother, of course, is dead against it. Dad just humphs.’
‘Mmm.’ Thinking about Stratford had filled her mind even more intensely with Giles, and she felt her stomach churn. It was just possible they might run into him in Stratford. He had some sort of job at the theatre for the vacation – selling programmes or something. Would they see him? Would he notice her? She was so insignificant compared with his usual glamorous girlfriends. Dark, studious, shy, she was acutely embarrassed whenever she had to mix with his set, who all seemed larger, more vivid than anyone she had ever known. They called each other ‘darling’, were wantonly careless about lectures and tutorials, flouted the rules about staying out of college late, left Oxford without permission.
One day in the seventh week of last term, Giles had taken her with a crowd of his friends to London to see a show. She persuaded another girl to tell lies to their tutor, saying she was ill and would have to miss her mediaeval history tutorial. The entire evening was ruined for her by her guilt and terror.
‘Look at my little bluestocking,’ Giles said, parading her before his friends and covertly caressing her, so that she blushed an ugly red.
They had dinner afterwards at Rules, and celebrities of the stage were pointed out to her. Giles’s OUDS cronies themselves could not quite conceal their awe. Then they went on, somewhat drunk, to a Soho night-club, which was horrible. Frances thought the floor show ugly and degrading, and a swarthy, middle-aged man pawed at her in the dark corridor near the Ladies.
They began the drive back to Oxford at dawn, tired and quarrelsome. Giles seemed morose and withdrawn, so that Frances sat, biting back tears, looking out of the window, past Beaconsfield, past High Wycombe, into Oxford through Wheatley. She asked to be dropped near the Martyrs’ Memorial, and wandered about disconsolately until well after the college gates were opened. The last week of term had been spent trying to avoid the Dean, in the fear that somehow she would reveal her guilt in her face.
At the end of that summer Hugh made his Kashmir journey, arriving back late for the start of term at Cambridge. But, as always, he was forgiven. He had managed to lose himself in the mountains. Had fallen in with a remote local tribe, and lived at their village for a month. By Christmas he had sold an account of his adventure, with photographs, to one of the major Sunday papers.
The following summer Hugh graduated, staying in England only long enough to attend Frances’s wedding to Giles in the chapel at St Martins. Then he had left for a two-year expedition up the Amazon.
Giles Kilworth did not sleep as well these days as he used to. In the past he had stayed up till the early hours, keyed up after a performance or drinking with chums when he was resting from work. The moment he laid his head on the pillow – unless, of course, he was otherwise occupied – he had always been able to fall asleep immediately, not waking until a civilised hour of ten or eleven, in time for a leisurely shower and a half-breakfast, half-lunch with the papers.
Lately – and he could not quite trace the beginning of the change – he had found it increasingly difficult to fall asleep. And then he would wake in the dark reaches of the night, or in the early morning. Partly, it was due to the twinges of pain he sometimes felt in his hips and knees. Stupid, really. Nothing to worry about. But just enough discomfort to keep him awake. Partly, too, he was keyed up about the filming of the new series of Vet in Hot Water. The first series was just finishing its run on ITV, and was a smash hit. He’d never had so much fan mail in his life. Odd, when you thought about it. He’d always seen himself as a serious actor, and he’d done his Hamlet in rep in Birmingham and his Romeo (rather late, when he was nearly forty) in Huddersfield. He’d had supporting roles at Stratford and the National, but somehow had not made it to the top at either. He was looking forward to his Lear some day, but not yet, for heaven’s sake!
The trouble was, there were so few good parts for Shakespearean actors in their fifties. Though Larry Olivier had got away with it. There was Malvolio, of course. And Shylock, though Giles wasn’t the right build for that – you ought to be gaunt and hungry-looking, and he had put on rather a lot of weight recently. As his agent kept pointing out to him, quite unnecessarily.
Caesar? Mark Antony? Not that anybody seemed to want to do the Roman plays at the moment. Derek J. was a lucky bastard getting Claudius for that great long Robert Graves thing on telly back in the seventies. A toga is quite flattering if you are, well, a bit on the heavy side.
There were other possibilities, of course. He’d like to try his hand at Ibsen’s Master Builder, but Brian was doing a run with that. Up in the north, though. He shuddered at the thought of a Scottish tour. Those freezing digs.
Really, it was much better to stay in London. That way, people didn’t forget about you. What a stupid idea that had been of Frances’s, years ago when he was just getting known in the right circles – some idea that they should live in the country. He could commute to London when he had a show, she said. Perhaps have a little flat there for sleeping over. The point was, you had to be seen about the place, all the time. He couldn’t make her understand that.
He had never supposed he’d be so good at comedy, though he had done his share of the usual frothy things in the early days. And there had been the Noel Coward about fourteen years ago, when that stupid little cow had tried to make him leave Frances and marry her, for God’s sake! He’d paid for the abortion and sent her packing. Nasty little piece of work. She’d only been trying to use him. You saw her all the time on the telly these days, in some soap, playing a brassy barmaid. That was about her level, he thought with satisfaction. She looks older than Frances now, though she must be nearly twenty years younger. Not much older than Anya. Saw her the other day at a party. That was a lucky escape, that time.
One more rehearsal tomorrow, then we’ll get the last episode in the can next week. He turned restlessly on his side, grunting as a pain stabbed briefly in his back. He wasn’t absolutely happy about the new series. There was a different screenwriter, who just didn’t have Max’s zest. And then Judy, that clever little kid with a face like a monkey, who’d played the part of his assistant, had already been sewed up tight in a stage contract she couldn’t wriggle out of, so they’d had to drop her character from the second series. Didn’t think it would matter, he thought grimly, but somehow the whole thing seemed to be falling flat without her, even though hers was only supposed to be a minor part. She has absolutely no sex appeal, not for me anyway, but she’s a real pro, bright as the proverbial button.
The worrying thing was that there wasn’t anything definite fixed up to follow this second series. Of course, with the reviews and the ratings, something was bound to turn up soon. Still, he hadn’t been happy when Frances had said that she was thinking of giving up her part-time lectureship at the poly.
‘Now that you’re doing so well, Giles,’ she said, ‘and with only Katya left at home, I thought I might stop. It takes so much time and energy, all the preparation and marking and examining, when I’m only paid on an hourly basis for the hours I’m in college lecturing. No pension. No paid holidays. No sick pay.’
‘Not for me either, darling.’
‘But you knew that when you went on the stage. My full-time colleagues at the poly have everything very nicely provided. It’s just the mugs like me – married women working part-time – who are exploited.’
‘Now don’t go all feminist,’ he said, in the beguiling comic tone he used so effectively in the series.
She looked at him coolly.
‘There are other things I would like to do. I think that it’s just about my turn. At last.’
That was unfair of her. They’d agreed right from the start that she would take all the part-time jobs she could until he made his name. Of course she had to give up that notion of going to Italy to do a PhD – on apprentices in Renaissance art studios, or whatever it was. Boring trash. What with Anya arriving while they were still undergraduates. It wasn’t his fault. She said she wanted to put his career first.
The trouble with women of Frances’s age was that they were both too young and too old. They were too young to be like their mothers’ generation, accepting their place in the scheme of things, staying at home and supporting their husbands. And they were too old to have the freedoms of younger women. But now some of them were trying to grab those freedoms in middle age. It was laughable.
Uncomfortably, he thought of Natasha, who disproved his theory. Now Irina, Frances’s mother, was the old-fashioned wifely type, irritating though she was. But her grandmother! By all accounts, Natasha was quite a girl in her day, back in post World War I Paris. Part of a real bohemian living-in-a-garret set, from the tales told by those odd characters who used to wander in and out of St Martins. All dead now, probably.
’Natasha Ivanovna, she comes from great family of Russia, you understand, my friend.’
The man, a morose White Russian in threadbare clothes, has warmed to Giles over the vodka bottle, in the little back sitting room at St Martins. ‘She saw terrible things in Revolution, terrible, when she was just girl. All her family slaughtered by those pigs of Bolsheviks. Not clean with gun, oh no. They make long time fun with swords taken from wall of Petrograd mansion. This she watches. Her mother, her sisters, her little brother. Her father is already dead, you understand. They climb over his dead body to get into house.’
He pours himself another glass, staring red-eyed into the fire.
‘When they finish with others of family, they turn to her, Natasha Ivanovna. All this time they hold her and she struggles. She thinks, I will throw myself on sword and it will be finished.’
‘But she didn’t.’
‘No, my friend. Natasha Ivanovna is very beautiful. They do not use sword. They rape her. All of them. I spit on them.’ He spits into the fire.
‘But how did she escape?’
‘One of this rabble – he was once servant of Greshlovs. He is ashamed. While pigs of Bolsheviks are stealing bottles from cellar, he manages to make escape her.’
For a long time he is silent, turning the glass of clear liquid round and round in his hand, staring into the past.
‘When she is in Paris, she becomes part of bohemian set – artists and musicians, living on Left Bank. She is now painter. She comes also to quarter of émigrés, where myself I am living. She is become very wild, you understand, my friend. For some it was like this, for others – nothing but grieving. Once, there is party at Russian club, and someone begins to play balalaika, very sad songs, mourning our lost Mother Russia. No, says Natasha Ivanovna, play fast dances, play for me!
‘And she dances on table amongst glasses and food, wearing nothing but her petticoat. Nothing, my friend! This you must believe.’
It is certainly true, what he says. His eyes gleam at the memory and his lips are wet.
Glumly, unable to sleep in the brighter light now slipping beneath the thick curtains, Giles thought of Frances. Certainly she had never shown any sign of dancing on the table in nothing but her petticoat, like Natasha. But some women did turn odd, didn’t they, at her sort of age?
The latest red-head, stirring and moaning a little in the bed beside him, broke his train of thought. He had completely forgotten about her. Disconcerted, he eyed her pink freckled shoulder with distaste. High time to end that particular liaison. He would slip quietly out of her bed now and go to his club for a shower and breakfast before tootling along to the rehearsal room in Ealing. He would send the aspiring starlet a graceful letter of farewell, with some roses and a bottle of bubbly. Something fond and fatherly, making her see that it was only a diversion, helping her to find her feet in London.
He started to ease himself out of the bed, groping for his slippers. A large, firm hand grasped him about the upper arm in a grip it would have been difficult to break without rudeness.
‘Darling?’ said the red-head.
With a groan, Giles sank back on to the pillows.
Irina Appleton, daughter of Natasha and mother of Frances, was not quite awake, but she was going over her lists in her mind:
Send Katya to village to collect cheese
Check enough glasses
Get Mrs D to wash glasses
Get Mr D to put out tables
Tell Olga to lay tables in garden
Mabel to make salads
Mabel to bake quiches
Mabel to see about tea urn
Get cakes from Sally
Nicholas to put up signs on drive about parking
Mabel to phone wine merchant about one case short
Sally to set up old dairy as crèche
Tony Nicholas & Paul to put up marquee
She stopped trying to pretend she was still asleep. In the other bed William’s breathing was deep and regular. Fretfully, she felt he had fallen ill just to spite her. Not retiring from his solicitor’s practice until he was over seventy, when he knew how difficult it was to deal with St Martins and Mother, despite Mabel’s splendid help. He could have been some use to her during these last ten years. Then he had a stroke and became just one more worry for her. Thank goodness he didn’t seem to mind Mabel nursing him.
And I do think Frances might have come down yesterday to give me a hand.
The voice inside Irina’s head was so indignant she could almost hear it in the room.
She could surely have cancelled that bit of teaching she does, they wouldn’t have minded. It’s not as if it is a real job. People are so inconsiderate. And Katya looked dreadful when she arrived last night. Why ever does Frances allow her to wear those appalling clothes? I would never have allowed her to dress like that.
Briefly, she recalled those disgusting short skirts of the sixties. But Frances was married by then. She would marry Giles, and much good it has done her. Though I will say his new show has been a real laugh. Quite made me forget my sciatica for half an hour.
That marquee. It looks awfully complicated. I hope the boys can manage it. There could easily be rain. Not that it is a marquee really. Just something the Scouts use at their summer camp, but it was kind of Mr Peters to lend it to us. Mother has no idea, really. How did she suppose we could afford a real marquee? This isn’t pre-Revolutionary Russia, I ask you.
Dreading the day ahead of her, Irina climbed slowly out of bed.
Frances had left Ross-on-Wye behind her. It was fully morning now, and the Black Mountains stood out clearly on her left as she headed north through Herefordshire. The cloud cover was thinning out. It might be a sunny day after all. Oh, I hope so, thought Frances, for Natasha’s sake.
Only five more miles to St Martins. She was nearly home.