Those who marry or die are initially interesting – and then they are not.
The Baronial Hall returned to normal; the guests returned to Dorlich and life entered the slipstream.
At Chudleigh, the summer term concluded with a last hoorah; the Headmaster’s Garden Party and the Old Boys' Cricket Match.
At Oak’s Haven it would finish with the Probationary Review - the official verdict on her first year of teaching and she approached it with the relish of a condemned prisoner awaiting a rope. This statutory progress report on classroom management; departmental teamwork and lesson content was a passport to a guaranteed job – or a career change. She expected few surprises – but was forced to admit that her effort with the examination classes was not matched by endeavour with the junior forms.
Her colleague, Danielle Simpson, was an indefatigable originator of wall displays, magical islands and adventure trails; she preferred Chaucer and would lobby for a timetable to play to her strengths.
The Review was next week and hung round her neck like the albatross.
Paul by contrast, was de-mob happy and marked his end of term with a five hour session in The Falcon. He appeared to have begun as he meant to go on but announced an unexpected intention to visit some antiquarian bookshops in the outlying villages in a quest for first editions of Wyndham Lewis; Richard Jeffries and Henry Williamson. As far as she knew, there was not a single second hand bookshop within a fifty mile radius of Necker’s Gorge and so waved him off, glad to be spared the prospect of a fortnight’s consumption in the Nag’s Farm Barn. He came and went infrequently, replete with the joys of country pub lunches, but his trips appeared to have been spectacularly unrewarding. At the end of two weeks he had purchased not a single book: All snapped up by serious collectors. Vultures!
and had been reduced to frequenting male outfitters where he had bought two dress shirts, a crimson velvet jacket and a black, pinstriped, narrow-lapelled suit.
He had also acquired a copy of Guilty; the current chart-topper by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb and took to humming A Woman in Love in place of the opening bars of Le sacre du printemps.
The music was awful – but when she had steeled herself to inspect the clothes, her influence was evident. Handsome is as handsome does – but is never displayed to optimum effect in flapping flares and threadbare collars.
The night before her Probationary Review, Paul telephoned to say that he had checked into a motel: Bloody carburettor – had to be towed the length of the motorway! AA took six hours to come out! and she seized her opportunity; depositing the flares, ten shirts and the worst of the knitwear in the trash can. He was making an effort and deserved encouragement.
The Probationary Review was good.
She had passed in all categories, excelling with the Sixth Form - and shortcomings with the juniors would be resolved by team teaching with Danielle Simpson.
Andrew Penn had been invited to an Open Day at Dorlich – a direct consequence of her chat with Professor Newbolt at Lionel’s wedding - and she accepted an invitation to edit the School Magazine. End of term drinks in the staffroom now became a thoroughly merited celebration. She arrived home later than usual – adoring the world and even the Truscotts. Paul was not there; the drawers were ajar and his side of the wardrobe was empty. There were no signs of burglary; he had obviously executed a forensic sartorial cull in response to her bold initiative with the flares and shirts. He must be wearing the new suit – for a surprise dinner at The Compleat Snapper or its exorbitant new competitor, Vesuvian Nights.
She showered, changed and replaced Barbra Streisand with Blondie.
Let the party begin!
An hour later, it hadn’t - and euphoria had been succeeded by a simmering rage directed at the Truscsotts or Percy or whoever else was detaining her husband in The Falcon, The Bear or the Trade Winds wine bar.
He was easily led - and it was about time he was led by her – to a well earned break in the Seychelles – or even a day trip to Dieppe! Anything – everything – except drudgery in Dorlich or purgatory at Picks Norton courtesy of Donald and Gillian.
The telephone rang and she sprang into action, smoothing her skirt and patting her hair.
Hello – I’m not in Dorlich.
This was too much. Necker’s Gorge. On her last day. Unforgivable!
I shan’t be back.
Drunk. Again. Well she’d go out. Alone. On the town!
I’m with somebody.
She heard herself say, slowly Frances Hunt?
The phone clicked and the world went dead.
An indefinite time later, she sniffed burning and discovered a cigarette hole in the hem of her skirt; an upturned ashtray at her feet and an empty bottle of Chablis.
The table lamp had been upended and Debbie Harry was singing Call Me from somewhere in the corner.
She walked to the stereo; removed the Blondie album; replaced it with Barbra Streisand and pulled the needle across the disc before lifting it from the turntable, stamping on it and snapping it in two. She placed both pieces under the carpet in the bedroom.
Turning to a bookcase, she drew out the ten volumes of The Collected Works of Thomas De Quincey. This set, bound in green leather with decorative gold tooling, was a present from Nicola to Paul on the occasion of their wedding and it had accompanied him to Conyham Crescent along with the wheel-backed chair. She selected a page towards the centre of each book and ripped it from top to bottom before returning the volume to its place on the shelf.
There was a pain in her chest and no wine in the fridge and it was dark.
A bell rang from somewhere followed by a dull banging.
She peered out of the window at a shape in the porch before opening the door upon – Chester Chase.
The sight of this grotesque emissary of Chudleigh resulted in an involuntary nauseous spasm and she dabbed at her mouth with a tissue whilst emitting noises to the effect that
Paul. Was not. At home.
He knew that and before she could demur, had walked into her lounge, sat down in the wheel-backed chair and opened a bag to reveal a two-litre bottle of cheap white wine. Her legs carried her into the kitchen and out again with two glasses and a corkscrew. He got up and requested directions to The little boys’ room; she pointed and he disappeared.
She sat by the window. It was raining outside. Inside, the silence was broken by the sound of loud urinating coming from the bathroom. He returned to the wheel-backed chair. She opened the wine; poured a glass and drank it and then another.
Chester Chase was wearing an off - white seersucker suit with a paisley cravat and tan moccasin-style shoes. As she regarded him from her seat at the window, it occurred to her that during the twelve month duration of their acquaintance, including four soirees chez Chase; three Boarding House Suppers; Founder’s Day drinks and the recent Headmaster’s Garden Party, he had barely acknowledged her existence – aiming the odd Hi there or Ciao in the direction of one of her shoulders.
Now he appeared to be saying rather a lot – which was a good thing because her tongue was not working.
She had been telephoned by Paul at an unspecified time earlier that evening and had neither left the house nor made calls.
She was vaguely aware that she would have to speak to somebody at some point about what she had been told but could see – despite the effects of almost a litre of wine -- that it was unlikely to be Chester Chase, or Dorian Chase – or anybody remotely connected with Chudleigh.
The fact that Chester Chase was sitting in the wheel-backed chair and easing a foot out of a moccasin as if preparing to call for his slippers was disconcerting. She had to ask herself how he had got there…….
As the only other person in the apartment was herself ----- then she must have let him in!! So that was the answer to that!
But it was not an answer to the question of why he was there in the first place.
Or why he seemed to know everything about something she had only been told about earlier in the evening before she had started to rip up books, stamp on records and burn holes in her clothes.
He was now leaning towards her, spreading and flexing his legs, with his hands cupping his crotch – either guarding it from attack or offering it up for inspection. In either case, it was safe from her - she really hoped that he understood that – but it was dominating the room and hedging her in. His hand slipped to the side of the chair; located a bottle and poured some of the contents into the second glass. She refilled her own.
He was speaking again - saying that Paul had asked him to call round; that she would be on her own and might need some company. As it so happened – she was in luck – because Dorian had flown out to Boston that afternoon to address the the Annual Henry James Convention; would be gone for at least a week and the children were staying with their cousins. So he was at the service of a damsel in distress and it went without saying that he had always found her to be a tremendously attractive lady………..
In fact – wretched dog that Paul undoubtedly was – there was no escaping it – he did have a way with the women!
Nicola – God Bless Her – was quite a siren if you liked that sort of smouldering Modigliani-style woman and although he wouldn’t be making himself very popular in this apartment, you had to admit that Frances Hunt was a bit of a Grace Kelly with her hats and her heels!
But he liked to think (refilling his glass) that he was a bit of a dog himself! With more than a few tricks up his sleeve – or somewhere else!! and Dorian had no complaints! Which was why she’d fled the country - for a rest!!
Wine or no wine, she would have had to be a deaf and dumb hermit beyond the reach of civilisation, to mistake the meaning of that and she did not mistake it. The question was – and it was big question – but then Chester Chase was a big man – what to do about it?
The facts as far as she could ascertain them, were these:
It was extremely late and dark and she was alone
She did not know who to call and if she did, who would come out at this time?
And if they did, how would they behave?
It was bad enough coping with one unwanted caller, let alone two. Or more.
She did not have a weapon to hand – except a corkscrew – and did not want blood and mess on top of the spilled wine and cigarette burns.
She was very – if not - extremely – drunk and this fact was affecting how she regarded – and would deal with – all of the above.
He must have asked a question because he had the look of an expectant puppy awaiting a treat. Except that he did not look like one of those delightful blond and cuddly Labradors who were always prancing around in toilet paper on the television. He looked like a slobbery old bulldog with bloodshot eyes and jiggling teats.
She was consumed with fury.
This horrible, ugly, man had arrived – not at her invitation – at her home, at an unspecified hour of the night; had sat in her lounge; used her toilet and subjected her to a monologue - without noticing or caring that she had not uttered one word in reply.
He was now proposing to use another facility in this apartment – her body – again without invitation – and was beginning to assume a slightly resentful aspect – as if she had stolen the last cake on the tray – or the last slice of prawn quiche on the platter.
Such behaviour was insupportable and she did not support it.
Summoning the reserves of determination and concentration that had seen her emerge from the spoils of examinations with eleven O levels; three Grade A A levels; two Special Papers with Distinction and two degrees she rose from her seat, propelled herself in the direction of Chester Chase and gesticulated towards a door.
He skipped through it – no doubt anticipating the treasures of the boudoir and found himself on the pavement in the rain with neither a coat nor an umbrella.
She shut the door and locked it and sank to the floor – with the words
HE’S NOT COMING BACK
invading her ears like the squeal of a stuck pig.
She was twenty five; Paul was thirty and France Hunt was forty three.
She had been married for thirteen months, three weeks and two days.
She slept where she was on the floor.