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Instances of the Number 3 Salley Vickers The fantastic new edition of the bestselling second novel from the author of ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’.Bridget Hansome and Frances Slater have only one thing in common. And that's Peter Hansome, who has died suddenly. Without their husband or lover, the women find that before they can rebuild their lives they must look to themselves and unravel mysteries that they had never before even suspected. So begins an unlikely alliance between wife and mistress and a voyage of discovery that is as comic as it is profound.‘Instances of the Number 3’ is a funny, beguiling exploration of love, bereavement, Shakespeare, illusion and the impossibility of escaping your past. Following on from ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’, this brilliant novel confirms Salley Vickers as a writer who transcends generations. Instances of the Number 3 Salley Vickers For Rupert Kingfisher, whose play The Prisoner’s Dilemma first suggested to me the creative possibilities in the number 3 It must have required many ages to discover that a brace of pheasants and a couple of days were both instances of the number 2: the degree of abstraction involved is far from easy…BERTRAND RUSSELLI doubt not of my own salvation; and in whom can I have such occasion of doubt as in my Self? When I come to heaven, shall I be able to say to any there, Lord! how got you hither? Was any man less likely to come hither than I?JOHN DONNE, Sermon VIII, 371 Table of Contents Cover Page (#u1e90bbbf-1FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) Title Page (#u1e90bbbf-2FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) Dedication (#u1e90bbbf-3FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) Epigraph (#u1e90bbbf-4FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) Preface (#u1e90bbbf-6FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 1 (#u1e90bbbf-7FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 2 (#u1e90bbbf-8FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 3 (#u1e90bbbf-9FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 4 (#u1e90bbbf-10FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 5 (#u1e90bbbf-11FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 6 (#u1e90bbbf-12FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 7 (#u1e90bbbf-13FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 8 (#u1e90bbbf-14FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 9 (#u1e90bbbf-15FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 10 (#u1e90bbbf-16FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 11 (#u1e90bbbf-17FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 12 (#u1e90bbbf-18FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 13 (#u1e90bbbf-19FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 14 (#u1e90bbbf-20FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) 15 (#litres_trial_promo) 16 (#litres_trial_promo) 17 (#litres_trial_promo) 18 (#litres_trial_promo) 19 (#litres_trial_promo) 20 (#litres_trial_promo) 21 (#litres_trial_promo) 22 (#litres_trial_promo) 23 (#litres_trial_promo) 24 (#litres_trial_promo) 25 (#litres_trial_promo) 26 (#litres_trial_promo) 27 (#litres_trial_promo) 28 (#litres_trial_promo) 29 (#litres_trial_promo) 30 (#litres_trial_promo) 31 (#litres_trial_promo) 32 (#litres_trial_promo) 33 (#litres_trial_promo) 34 (#litres_trial_promo) 35 (#litres_trial_promo) 36 (#litres_trial_promo) 37 (#litres_trial_promo) 38 (#litres_trial_promo) 39 (#litres_trial_promo) 40 (#litres_trial_promo) 41 (#litres_trial_promo) 42 (#litres_trial_promo) 43 (#litres_trial_promo) 44 (#litres_trial_promo) 45 (#litres_trial_promo) 46 (#litres_trial_promo) 47 (#litres_trial_promo) 48 (#litres_trial_promo) 49 (#litres_trial_promo) 50 (#litres_trial_promo) 51 (#litres_trial_promo) 52 (#litres_trial_promo) 53 (#litres_trial_promo) 54 (#litres_trial_promo) About The Author (#litres_trial_promo) Praise (#litres_trial_promo) Also by Salley Vickers (#litres_trial_promo) Preview (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Preface (#) It is said there were ancient schools of thought which held that the number 3 is unstable. If the reasons for this belief were ever known they are lost in time. A three-legged stool refutes the claim, as—less prosaically—we are told does the Christian trinity. Whatever the case, it is a fact that three is a protean number: under certain conditions it will tend to collapse into two—or expand into four… 1 (#) After Peter Hansome died, people were surprised that his widow seemed to be spending so much time with his mistress. Bridget Hansome was not the kind of woman who could have failed to notice her husband’s discreet, but regular, visits to the flat in Turnham Green where Frances Slater lived. And, indeed, anyone married to Peter Hansome would have needed to learn the art of turning a blind eye. Had the various friends and acquaintances of the Hansomes’ been asked to bet on how the wife might deal with a mistress discovered in the aftermath of the husband’s death (were it the thing to gamble on the likely effects on a widow of the discovery of a long-established infidelity), the odds would probably have been on Bridget allowing Frances to attend the funeral, but with an unspoken provision that no mention be made of the reason for her being there. In the event the punters would have lost their bets for this is not what occurred. In spite of the fact that she lived nearby—the cremation was conducted at a cemetery off the Lower Richmond Road—Frances did not attend the funeral ceremony. She had a still lively recollection of a warm evening, on which the same cemetery had been the scene of one of Peter’s more flamboyant acts of lovemaking. Whether it was this, and the fact that she could not, therefore, easily reconcile herself to it as the place from which she must make a final farewell to the body that—flanked by marble angels and other funerary pieces—had lately enjoyed her own, must rest as one of those matters into which we shall not, for the moment, enquire. What is known is that on the day of the funeral, Frances took the Eurostar to Paris, where she concluded a walk by the Seine with a visit to Notre-Dame—stopping, before entering the cathedral, to buy a bunch of anemones from a flower seller. Bridget Hansome was well aware that she was not the only woman to enjoy her husband’s affections. ‘Handsome is as handsome does!’ she had been in the habit of saying, making a small pun on her husband’s name. This observation was generally accompanied by one of her little ironic smiles. These smiles might have been described as affectionate, but they might equally have been described as sly. Whatever the truth of the matter (and it is also a truth that human emotion tends to be made up of different, and often competing, strands), Peter took the smiles in good part. He was a physically vain man and, not quite understanding the point of the saying—more accurately, for he was not stupid either, not really troubling to comprehend it—was mildly pleased to have a wife who appreciated his looks enough to joke about them, despite the fact that they brought with them certain consequences. One of these ‘consequences’ was Frances. There had been others—not too many—over the years, but Frances was the only one who could be said to have stuck. In fact it was Bridget herself who had been the cause of the introduction, during one of her trips abroad. Early on in her marriage Bridget had discovered that her husband disliked her being away from home. It is unlikely that Peter himself was aware that his extramarital escapades had more to do with an incapability with his own loneliness than the outward appearance he was quietly proud of—women tending, perversely perhaps, to be more susceptible to marks of inward frailty than rugged good looks. It is a fact, however, that it is easier to be tender towards a failing when it is not part of one’s daily dealings. Bridget had been first alarmed, then concerned and finally increasingly impatient when she found that Peter became fractious, and prone to what she privately termed ‘sillinesses’, when she made one of her regular trips abroad. Bridget sold old French bric-à-brac. She had started with a stall on the Portobello Road but now ran a thriving shop in Fulham, which traded in garden furniture, aged linen, enamel pans, lace curtains, parasols—items of faded beauty from a French pastoral past for which she had a particular eye. In these days of shabby chic such shops are commonplace. But Bridget, in perceiving that something worn and traditional might be what was missing from modern lives, had been in the vanguard of contemporary taste. It was she who pioneered the belief that the venerable might be more stylish than the smart—the glass and steel designs which were once the height of interior fashion for the well heeled. Ahead of her imitators, she became established as a ‘name’, of sorts; the ‘Living’ pages of newspapers and magazines deferred to her for hints on the newest ‘old’ styles. Bridget was also blessed with sources of supply for the items she sold in her shop—still-secret places in the heart of rural France which her later competitors had neither the luck nor the stamina to discover. The stamina was required for the combination of long drive and longer conversations in vernacular French, accompanied by large quantities of coffee or wine or, as the day went on, spirits drawn from complicated bottles. These tête-à-têtes would be conducted with elderly men or women in minor decaying châteaux, who were pleased to offload the mouldering relics of a bygone way of life to the blonde Anglaise who seemed sincere in her love of their country and its artefacts. And there was no doubt that Bridget was sincere. One of her hallmarks was that she was a person who lacked ‘side’—too much so for some, who found her blunt. This did not mean, however, that she necessarily revealed all that she thought. Indeed, the years of living with Peter had taught her to keep many of her observations to herself, full revelation, she couldn’t help feeling, being something which was a virtue only among the reckless or the cruel. So that finally—for her rather late in the day—perceiving that her husband missed her, she did not voice this realisation directly but instead asked Mickey, who lived next door, if she would ‘keep an eye’ on Peter. Mickey had lived in their terraced street since long before Peter and Bridget had married and bought their house. Although the house had not been fashionable when they bought it, they had had to scrape around to find the deposit as these were the days when Bridget was just starting her Fulham shop and Peter had another wife and another establishment—one with children in it—to keep. The area had ‘come up’ since, but Mickey was a survivor of its more modest past, having inherited the house from her mother whom she had womanfully looked after till the day the old lady died. ‘It’s my pride my mum never saw the inside of a hospital,’ Mickey had said to Bridget when the latter had called asking to borrow sugar for the removal men’s tea, thus setting the tone for a relationship in which Mickey had continued, on and off, to supply sugar for twenty years. Mickey loved to chat and as Peter liked, in a certain mood, to chat himself—chatting being something which Bridget was conscious of not always sufficiently supplying either for her husband or her neighbour—the hope had been that Mickey might go some way to fill the gap made by Bridget’s periodic ‘French leaves’. Mickey also liked her drink. Driving through the quiet countryside of mid France, observing the boles of mistletoe silhouetted in the columns of poplars against a wide azure sky, Bridget would think of her husband and Mickey sipping whiskies together; it was easier to feel fond of them both when she was away. It was on just such an occasion, when Bridget was off in Normandy for a pre-Easter run, that Mickey invited Peter round. The weather was unseasonably fine, the sun quite searching for March, and they sat outside admiring the smart ranks of colour-coordinated daffodils in Mickey’s garden. ‘This is my friend Frances,’ Mickey had said, indicating a thin, dark woman, considerably younger than her hostess, but with what Peter was later to describe as ‘old’ eyes. It was not exactly the case that Frances was a ‘friend’. Mickey was liberal in her friendships and Frances turned out to be someone Mickey had met casually at the estate agents where she worked part-time on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Frances was looking for a house in the area and Mickey, who liked to be of help (it was also to soak up some of that liking to help—where she was conscious of giving disappointment—that Bridget had made the suggestion about Peter), had asked Frances back for a drink to ‘give her an idea of what these are like’, since Frances had indicated it was such a house that she was hoping to buy. In the end Frances bought a flat in Turnham Green, the prices of the Fulham houses having risen beyond her pocket, where, after a suitable lapse of time, Peter visited her during one of Bridget’s summer trips to the Vichy area. ‘I love my wife,’ he had declared, this being the gesture of fidelity to Bridget he was in the habit of making on such occasions. ‘If we are going to do this you must understand I will never leave her.’ And in saying he ‘loved’ Bridget Peter was not, as it happens, speaking to deceive. His liking for chat was not, as is sometimes supposed, a sign of superficiality, any more than a tendency to silence necessarily indicates depth. ‘Chatting’ was one of Peter’s means of helping himself to stay alive. Frances, who had closed down an affair when the man was foolish enough to suggest that he was ‘misunderstood’, was not displeased to hear a man speak unashamedly of love for his wife. Although Frances was not prone to introspection, unconsciously she was aware that as a man speaks so he is: a declaration of conjugal love was a sign of an affectionate nature—and a loyal one, of a kind. At least Peter was not going to ‘explain’ any entanglement with her as a product of ill treatment meted out to him elsewhere. Frances did not care to be seen as some sort of therapist—sexual or otherwise. She liked—as most of us do—to be liked for her own inherent qualities, good and bad, and not as a reaction to qualities in another person. Frances was thirty-six when she first met Peter—an age when women often suffer degrees of anxiety about ‘settling down’. Whether her liking for Peter was as innocent of a reactive component as his was for her is another question entirely. 2 (#) Peter was sixty-two when he died. A truck driver, in an October fog, leaning to adjust the volume on his tape of Elton John’s Greatest Hits, took his eye from the road, failed to see a car coming up on the run into the Hogarth roundabout, swerved to avoid the car and, instead, hit Peter’s BMW, broadside. This, not fatal in itself, had the result that the BMW was swung around in the path of a speeding Mercedes. The driver of the truck was shaken, the driver of the Mercedes damaged his arm, but Peter’s neck was broken in the ensuing crash. The Hogarth roundabout happened to be the spot where if he had been going to visit Frances Peter would have swung off to the left. The roundabout was also the final stage of the normal route home to Fulham. What no one could know was that Peter was intending to make his way to neither of these destinations, but instead to a discreetly-fronted house in Shepherd’s Bush where unusual tastes of all kinds were catered for. Although neither woman had any knowledge of this other destination, it is true to say that of the two Bridget would have best tolerated the knowledge. For weeks after Peter’s death Bridget was unable to do anything about his things. Reluctant to move so much as a paper clip from his desk, she walked about the house playing old records, opening and putting down books, eating cold baked beans, keeping unusual hours. Sometimes she moved in a slow, stately dance to the voices of Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Eartha Kitt—tunes she and Peter had known when they were younger: ‘walking out’, as she herself had called it; in particular she became addicted to a song entitled ‘Love for Sale’. Because Bridget was older than Peter she had always imagined to herself that she would be the one to die first. This had mildly bothered her: past form suggested that she would better be able than her husband to cope with a permanent absence. From time to time she had allowed herself the luxury of making vivid how, in the event of her own death, she would be missed by Peter. She had not quite defined in her mind the form this ‘missing’ would take, but it might have included a new-found impatience on her husband’s part with an alternative source of feminine comfort. What Bridget found she disliked most, in the weeks after Peter’s death, was having to talk about him. There were numerous phone calls; the letters were not such a pressure—these she could reply to in the familiar-smelling comfort of their double bed, where she wore Peter’s shirts and sometimes, because her feet had grown unaccountably cold, his woolly socks. But the talking…how she loathed it! And yet, how kind people wanted to appear—really, it made one take against ‘kindness’. Yet for all Bridget’s indifference to appearances it seemed wrong to her to leave the answerphone on. She must not be stingy with her loss—she felt it should be shared, available to all, like the torrential rains they were having this autumn. And it was the case that the skies seemed to have some secret sympathy for her dead husband: they wept and howled impressively, highlighting her own lack of tears. Bridget found she could not cry for Peter. Indeed, when she was obliged to participate in the conversations she so detested, she was conscious of a note in her voice which she knew must sound at odds with her situation. She was aware that this was disconcerting to those who had called to condole. To call this note ‘gleeful’ would be inaccurate. It was not glee in Bridget’s voice, but it might have been mistaken for it; so that Frances, when she plucked up the courage to call the Fulham number, thought for a moment, as Bridget peremptorily answered the phone: Oh, she doesn’t mind! ‘It’s Frances Slater,’ she said. And waited. Bridget knew, of course, who Frances was. Peter, with unusual foresight, had once said, ‘If anything happens to me there’s someone who might get in touch,’ and Bridget, with perfect understanding—though not, as it turned out, perfect prescience—had replied, ‘Nothing’s going to happen to you—don’t be melodramatic.’ But had added, less briskly, ‘Of course I would speak to anyone who mattered.’ However, when she took Frances’s call, she simply said, ‘Ah yes!’ which Frances found discouraging. ‘I knew Peter,’ Frances had continued, and just in time prevented herself adding ‘a little’. She did not want, by implying the connexion with Peter was less than it had been, to slide into appeasing Peter’s wife. Bridget had never been one for appeasement. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I expect you’re feeling odd, aren’t you?’ which was a surprise to Frances after the discouragement. The two women met first in the café at John Lewis. This was Bridget’s idea—she was keen to avoid anything which hinted at the scent of camellias. And it was convenient for Frances, who worked in Soho nearby. ‘I’ve bought a night light,’ Bridget announced after Frances had found her (‘You’ll know me, I expect, I’m big and blonde and I’ll be wearing green’). A conical transparent light with coloured seahorses bobbing around in it sat, slightly absurdly, on the pale teak-effect table between the two women. ‘The seahorses rise and fall when the light is on.’ ‘Are you sleeping OK?’ Frances asked. It had sounded like a cue. ‘Moderately,’ said Bridget. ‘And when you switch it off there’s a mermaid at the bottom, combing her hair and admiring herself in a looking glass. See!’ She pointed out a small but perfectly formed maiden with a curvaceous green plastic fishtail. Frances, who was quick, got the drift: there was to be no demonstration of emotion. ‘I had something like that once,’ she offered. ‘It was in one of those globe things children get given—you shook it and bits flew around.’ The remark felt like a shot in the dark. Happily it hit home. ‘Usually snow,’ Bridget agreed. ‘Do you want tea? If so we’ll have to get another pot—I’ve drunk nearly all this already.’ Outside the weather rained down tears. Bridget thought: She’s not too bad, and felt it was not impossible that she might, one day, drop tears too. ‘You don’t look like the kind of woman who “needs to talk”,’ Bridget said. ‘I’d better say, frankly, from the outset, that “talking” is not part of my plan. However—’ she went on, as if there had been an attempt to interrupt, which was not the case, for Frances was listening in silent fascination—‘it seems discourteous, somehow, to Peter if we don’t meet, though I hardly know how we should conduct ourselves.’ What Frances thought was: Why does she have to be so different? Aloud, she said, ‘I don’t know that I want so terribly to “talk” either—though there are things I could probably only say to you.’ ‘That’s true,’ conceded Bridget, and lapsed into morose silence. Frances tipped tea around the cup and watched a couple across the way having a row. ‘You’ve always fancied her—don’t bother to deny it!’ she heard the woman say—a woman with badly applied make-up and backcombed hair. At least, Frances thought, we are spared scenes like that. For the first time it crossed her mind that they were a threesome—herself, Peter and Bridget. Were a threesome, she supposed she must think of it now. ‘There’s a concert on at the Wigmore Hall—’ Bridget said, suddenly coming to—‘Schubert—which I like—and Mahler—which I don’t, but we could sneak out after the interval—unless you like Mahler, that is?’ Frances said that she had no particular view on Mahler. As it happened, she had no particular view on Schubert either. 3 (#) ‘The point is,’ Bridget said, sucking noisily at a bone from the remains of her coq au vin, ‘Schubert is never bogus—but Mahler can be.’ They were eating, after the concert, at a restaurant which each woman had visited with Peter. Neither made even oblique reference to this. Tactfully, they commented on the decor, the stylish young waiters and waitresses, with no suggestion that they might have shared opinions on such matters with the dead man who had brought them together. Frances said, ‘I’m ignorant about music—but I suppose like it better when it isn’t too loud.’ ‘Quite right,’ Bridget agreed. ‘Symphonies are overrated.’ She tapped a cigarette from a blue Gauloises packet. ‘Do you mind?’ Too late if I do! thought Frances. ‘Not at all.’ ‘You never know these days.’ Frances thought: She must have been pretty once with that colouring. Bridget thought: I wouldn’t have minded a nose like that, beaky and aristocratic. The waiter came and flirted idly with the two women, but more with Bridget because of her French. Bridget asked which part of France he was from and there followed an animated conversation on Arlesian sausage. ‘How did you learn?’ Frances asked. ‘Practice. I learned most haggling. The French respect you more if you bargain hard—but you need the slang to keep up.’ ‘I’m not good at languages,’ said Frances. ‘That’s two things you’re better at—languages and music.’ ‘It’s not a competition!’ Bridget remarked coldly. Frances always travelled to work by tube so Bridget drove her home. Passing Turnham Green Bridget said, ‘It’s where they turned’em back, isn’t it?’ ‘Back?’ ‘The Civil War,’ Bridget explained. ‘The Roundhead apprentices turned back the Royalists here—hence “Turn’em Green”—it was the site of a battle.’ ‘Oh, yes.’ Frances was not really listening. Bothered over what she should do about asking Bridget in when they reached the flat, she preferred not to be lectured to about her own neighbourhood. She wanted to dispel the annoyance by saying, ‘That’s three things then you know more about than me: music, languages and local history.’ It was the kind of remark she might have made to Peter and it would have made him laugh. That she could no longer say such things suddenly depressed her. She decided she wouldn’t ask Bridget in after all. ‘Would you like to come in for a drink?’ she heard herself saying and was doubly angry when Bridget accepted. I am managing this badly, she thought, ushering Bridget into the flat where she had been used to receiving Bridget’s husband. Frances’s flat was like Frances. Drifting round the room Bridget noticed the books were all in alphabetical order. Few ornaments, but three very good paintings on the sunflower-yellow walls. ‘That’s a Kavanagh, isn’t it?’ Bridget peered at a picture of a nude in high heels, reading in a striped deckchair. (Peter, in fact, had bought it for Frances’s thirty-seventh birthday. ‘I thought she was like you,’ he had said, removing all her clothes but her shoes.) ‘Yes,’ said Frances, shortly, glad she had her back to Bridget and was occupied with pouring whisky and water. Bridget, who had her country’s usual measure of telepathic powers, smiled rather nastily at the back. The nude’s resemblance to Frances had not escaped her; Peter liked that sort of statement: he had once given Bridget a small, powerful bronze of a woman naked on a horse. She lay back, deliberately sprawling across the clean lines of the sofa, imagining her husband here. He would have drunk whisky and water too. Frances had poured Jameson for her, the whisky Peter had liked. Frances herself, she noticed, was drinking brandy. ‘It’s funny,’ Bridget said, conversationally, ‘I can’t believe he’s dead. Do you weep at all, yourself? ‘Not at all,’ Frances lied. She didn’t want this. ‘I’ve been too busy,’ she added, unnecessarily. It wasn’t true; time had hung about her like a moody adolescent. ‘You see,’ said Bridget, ignoring Frances’s efforts at camouflage, ‘a person—I expect you know this—isn’t only flesh and blood. A person exists inside one, informing one’s state of mind. There were whole weeks when Peter and I were apart—of course, you know that too!—so my system hasn’t got the habit of the difference. I keep expecting to come home and find him there. And when I don’t, when I walk in and everything’s as I left it, my system just thinks: Oh well, he’ll be along later, what’s all the fuss about?’ Frances, who had noted the parenthetical ‘of course you know that too’, was partially reassured. ‘I haven’t got used to it, either,’ she agreed. ‘But then I saw him in patches anyway.’ She felt better with the matter of her arrangements with Peter broached. ‘A thing of something and patches,’ said Bridget, lazily. ‘What’s that…?’ But Frances didn’t know. She was thinking it mightn’t be so hard for Peter to have been in love with his wife. This thought only faintly troubled her: Peter had needed her too, needed her orderliness. Bridget had the air of something frightening about her: she might be amused by, even entertain, perturbation. ‘Hamlet,’ Bridget said suddenly. ‘Of course, it’s Hamlet, I’ll forget my own name next. It’s “king” not “thing”—“a king of shreds and patches”.’ She fell backwards on the pale sofa, triumphant. ‘We did Hamlet at school,’ said Frances, determined this time not to be outdone. ‘I played Gertrude; I didn’t like her.’ ‘Hmm,’ said Bridget, unconvinced. She had some sympathy for the queen who had married her husband’s killer. ‘Hamlet’s a case in point.’ she said darkly. ‘Look what happens when Hamlet’s father dies—he doesn’t go away. Quite the reverse. He comes back and rants like all get out!’ ‘I do hope Peter won’t come back and rant,’ said Frances, feeling it was safe now to risk humour. 4 (#) It seemed obvious that Frances should be the first to be told. ‘I’m buying a house in Shropshire,’ Bridget had said. ‘But you’re not leaving Fulham altogether, are you?’ Frances had asked, with an odd sense of being abandoned. By now Frances and Bridget had met several times. More regularly, Frances suggested, trying somewhat to mollify Bridget, than she had met with Peter. Bridget, however, had not been mollified. She was quite able to like Frances without liking what Frances had meant to Peter. Most women in Bridget’s shoes as a matter of course would have detested Frances. But this is not an account of feminine jealousy, or even revenge, and not all human beings (not even women) conform to the attitudes generally expected of them. Bridget was interested in Frances because Peter had been. She did not enjoy the fact that Frances had been her husband’s mistress, but she was aware that her thoughts or feelings could now have little impact—if they ever had—on the hard facts of Peter’s liking for another woman. Frances, equally, might have disliked Bridget, except that in Frances’s case, with Peter gone, it was almost as if Bridget was a point of contact with him. It was also interesting to Bridget that she and Frances talked on the phone, because Bridget was not, as she liked to say, a ‘phone person’. ‘I prefer letters,’ she had explained to Peter when, still married to someone else, he had reproved her for being brusque with him when he rang unexpectedly from a coin box. ‘With letters you can be sure you are not interrupting someone.’ ‘I’m sorry if I was interrupting,’ he had declared, slightly huffily. Bridget had found the house when she had gone away for a weekend to a country hotel. The hotel was a reward for having finally steeled herself to go through Peter’s bureau drawers—an exercise to which she had not been looking forward. She had never been what Peter had referred to as a ‘rummager’. Whatever Peter kept in his drawers was his own affair: Bridget had never had the faintest temptation to pry. This lack of temptation proved unhelpful when it survived her husband’s death. Certain forms of intimacy seemed out of place to Bridget within the cool depths of her union with Peter. She did not warm to the kind of relationship which shares bathrooms, just as she felt there were other matters which should be kept private. On several occasions she had opened the desk, taken out a few papers and felt a strong inclination to make a bonfire of them. As it happened, she had just braved the first pile of bank statements when Frances made her introductory phone call and it was relief at this distraction which had prompted Bridget’s suggestion that they meet. Maybe it was the stimulus of meeting Frances, but after that long, peculiar day—the tea at John Lewis’s followed by the Wigmore Hall and ending with the whisky at Frances’s flat—Bridget set to work, ‘like a Trojan!’, and polished off the contents of the oak bureau with surprising speed. It was after this that she had gone to stay in Shropshire. The hotel had been shabby, with chestnut-wood fires and wild duck on the lake—also on the menu. It was in the hollow of time before Christmas and the hotel was empty except for herself and a couple conducting an illicit affair. Bridget scrutinised the couple with more-than-usual intensity. They seemed much too merry for her, with none of the easy familiarity which she had known with Peter. Possibly Peter had been ‘merry’ with Frances? One day, she speculated, she might ask. On the Saturday morning Bridget had set out to follow a footpath across a ploughed field, bare but for a grounded flock of strutting lapwing. ‘O green-crested lapwing, thy-eye screaming forebear-air,’ sang Bridget at the top of her voice. ‘I-eye charge thee disturb not my-eye slumbering fair,’ passing, at the first stile, the young woman from the hotel alone, and in visible tears. Well, if that was going to be the penalty of merriment! Not wanting to be dogged by this picture of woe, Bridget had turned off the footpath and followed along a hawthorn hedge to a lane. The lane resolved into a red-brick house with four chimneys and a ‘For Sale’ sign stuck on a post in the garden. Hearing footsteps, and fearing pursuit from the tear-stained young woman, Bridget veered into the porch. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you,’ she apologised to the man who answered the door. ‘But I saw the sign.’ The oak bureau had lately yielded up the news that Bridget would be £250,000 better off from a life-insurance policy. It seemed fitting that this should turn out to be the figure quoted for the Shropshire house, which Bridget bought at the asking price without even benefit of survey. ‘There was no need for one,’ she explained to Frances when she telephoned her. ‘It smelled dry, there are fireplaces and there’s a view.’ Of hills—remote, misty. There was also a rookery in the elm tree at the bottom of the garden but that she kept to herself. What Bridget found she wanted, once she had begun to assimilate the fact that Peter would never return, was a place where there were no associations. It was not so much Peter himself that she needed the rest from, but the effect of his dying. The dying had eaten into her reserves: the people, the pitiless paperwork, the exhausting failure to weep. The house where they had spent their married life seemed filled with bewildering and demanding turmoil. She resented the expense of trying to meet all this—that was why she wanted to get away—among the rooks. ‘It’ll only be for weekends,’ she reassured Mickey. Bridget had decided to give Mickey something from Peter’s alleged will. In fact, everything had been left, in her lifetime, to Bridget, but this did not hinder Bridget from interpreting the will in her own way. Mickey had stood in for Peter’s wife in her absences; it was appropriate Mickey should be rewarded. A thousand pounds seemed the right sort of sum. Mickey had taken the money with a lack of resistance which made Bridget wonder if the apocryphal legacy should have been rather more; nor had Mickey been reassured by Bridget’s account of the house in Shropshire. ‘If it’s weekends you’re thinking of going there and you away all that time abroad, I shan’t hardly see you, then.’ ‘Not every weekend.’ Bridget had tried to be placating. She had, in fact, hired an assistant to serve in the shop at weekends so theoretically she could be away every one if she wished. ‘I’d say it was dangerous, leaving your house with no one there like that. Course I’m next door but I’m only an old woman—no match for any burglar or whoever chooses to call!’ her neighbour had said with unconsoled relish. 5 (#) Mickey’s words stuck in Bridget’s mind. Perhaps it was foolish to leave a London house regularly unattended? How she wanted to get away, though, and be by herself. It seemed as if she had never been by herself, not since she married Peter. So when the boy turned up it was almost like an answer to a prayer. The doorbell rang one Saturday morning when, dressed only in one of Peter’s Vyella shirts, she was trying to steel herself to face Peter’s papers and was tempted not to answer. She had found Peter’s dressing gown and had it clutched about her when she got to the door and saw the boy walking back down the path. Thanks to the many occasions she had crept home from trips abroad in the small hours, the hinge of the door had been worked on to open quietly, so he did not hear her and she could have let him go altogether and resumed her vague sortings of the papers into toppling piles. It was the sight of the sharp little protruding shoulder blades, almost like wings, she thought, which made her call out, ‘Did you want something?’ The boy turned at her voice and she saw a young face which was, as she phrased it later to Frances, ‘as beautiful as the day—quite breathtaking!’ Frances, who had so far encountered only the firmer of Bridget’s surfaces, was momentarily surprised and then amused at the hyperbole. (That this was not hyperbole but the straightest report became clear only much later when Frances also met Zahin and described him, in turn, as like a ‘dark Apollo’. By then the ‘Apollo’ was staying in Bridget’s house—but this is to anticipate.) The boy hesitated, then moved back up the path towards her. Bridget noticed that he had plucked a soft green frond of the rosemary which grew in an aromatic bush by the front door. He was neatly dressed, the boy, in a white shirt, navy sweater and grey trousers. The trousers gave the impression of having been pressed for the occasion. Moved by the sight of the tender spear of rosemary twisting in his hand Bridget thawed. ‘Hello?’ The boy did not smile but bowed his head a little. When he looked up she saw that despite his dark hair and complexion he had eyes of the deepest blue. ‘Excuse me please.’ ‘Can I help you?’ He had a small gold earring in his right ear. ‘I was looking for Mr Hansome.’ ‘Ah,’ said Bridget, ‘in that case you’d better come inside.’ He stood in the middle of the kitchen in an attitude of respect so that Bridget felt she had almost to push him down into a chair. ‘Would you like coffee?’ He shook his head. ‘Tea?’ Another shake. ‘What can I offer you to drink then?’ If this young man was unacquainted with Peter’s death he might need to be fortified against the news—or she, at least, needed to be fortified against telling it. ‘Please, a glass of milk?’ Grateful for this temporary relief Bridget took down one of her glasses that she had brought back from Limoges and filled it to the brim; the white milk glowed green behind the thick glass. She poured herself coffee and sat down opposite the boy across the kitchen table. ‘I am Mrs Hansome,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry if this is a shock to you but Mr Hansome, my husband, is dead. He was killed in a car crash some weeks ago.’ It would soon be Christmas; almost two months since she herself had received the news from the policewoman with the guarded face. An expression of intense surprise flickered across the blue eyes. ‘But he is married…?’ It was as if the other news had passed quite over him. ‘Yes,’ said Bridget amused. ‘He is, or was married. I am his wife,’ she repeated, ‘or his widow, I suppose now.’ And indeed this was the first time she had consciously applied the word to herself. The boy put his head upon the table and began to cry. The crying made big searing sobs so that Bridget hearing them was filled with something like admiration. To be able to weep like that—it was remarkable! She leaned across the table and patted his shoulder. ‘He felt nothing,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry—he was not in pain.’ Against such a torrential display she felt she must provide some consolation. The boy lifted his head and looked at her with tragic eyes. ‘I did not know. He was my friend and I did not know.’ ‘Yes,’ said Bridget, taxed by her ignorance of the identity of this young person, ‘I agree. It is terrible not to know.’ The boy began to drink the milk. He took big noisy gulps, draining the glass. Then he licked around his upper lip where a soft vestigial moustache was barely showing. ‘I am called Zahin,’ he said. ‘And I am Bridget.’ ‘You are Mrs Hansome?’ ‘Yes,’ said Bridget. The penny seemed at last to have dropped. ‘I am Mrs Hansome.’ ‘Then,’ said the boy, ‘you will help me.’ ‘And he just sat there and asked you, straight out?’ Frances asked. ‘Not so much “asked”—more like told.’ They were eating together in Bridget’s kitchen. On the wall, behind Bridget from where she was sitting, Frances could see the plate she had given Peter for his fifty-sixth birthday. A pale green glazed plate—Chinese; the kitchen wall was not where she would have hung it. ‘But who is he?’ Supper was eggs and tomatoes which Bridget had fried in the virgin olive oil she brought from France in unlabelled bottles, only produced for special guests. Mopping her plate with a corner of baguette, Bridget checked an automatic inward response of: Mind your own business! ‘He seems to have met Peter at a sponsorship do—his firm sponsored kids through school from various parts of the world they were dealing with.’ From Iran. The boy had told her. ‘My father’s family were good friends with the Shah—when he died my family became outcast—it is dangerous for the men in our family. So, two years ago I come to England.’ Frances did not say, as another woman might have done, I wonder why Peter never mentioned it? She knew as well as Bridget that Peter was a man whose life ran to compartments. Instead she said, ‘But where has he been living until now?’ A sensible question, Bridget thought, approving Frances’s practicality. ‘With another Iranian family, but now they are moving to the States. Apparently, Peter knew this and promised, when the time came, to help the boy find a new berth. But the time came for Peter first,’ she concluded, making one of her slightly morbid jokes. Frances, whose failure to respond to the joke didn’t mean she didn’t get it, said, ‘Is he a nice boy? Did you like him?’ ‘I liked him, I think,’ said Bridget. ‘As to whether he’s “nice” I wouldn’t care to say.’ And it was the case, she thought later, washing up after Frances had left—having declined Frances’s help—she couldn’t say whether the boy was ‘nice’, ‘niceness’ being a quality which did not have much meaning for her. The mechanical business of washing and drying dishes was calming before bed. As to ‘liking’ people, that was a different matter. Did she like the boy? It was too soon to say. But there must have been something or she would not have come out with her bold suggestion. Climbing into bed in Peter’s shirt it came to her that the boy had had some effect: he had been enlivening, quickening something which had lain fallow in her since Peter’s unexpected departure. 6 (#) Bridget called to deliver Mickey’s Christmas present, a blanket made up from coloured knitted squares. Bridget was aware that this might not find favour: Mickey, who was a traditionalist, would have preferred something on more conventional lines—a set of bath luxuries, a frilly nightdress, port. But Bridget could never bring herself to give to others what she herself would not enjoy. ‘I have found a lodger,’ she said, as much as anything to fill in the silence with which Mickey was contemplating the cheerful squares. ‘He will be here when I am away so I have said to him that if there’s any problem he can ask you.’ ‘My mother had one like this. Where d’you get it? Wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t hers come back to me.’ Bridget, who had bought the blanket from a colleague in Southend in exchange for a stuffed tapir, said she had bought it in a Chelsea sale. ‘There you are—could easy be mother’s, she got rid of all her stuff when she come to live with me.’ With an air of one who knew how to do things properly Mickey presented Bridget with an oblong package wrapped in red and gold ribbon and holly paper. A strong smell of violets confirmed the identity of the gift. ‘Coty bath cubes—same as I always give you.’ No surprises there. Mickey, at first pleased to have news that there was to be company next door, was dismayed to find that the lodger Bridget was planning to install was what, among her friends, she still referred to as ‘dusky’. ‘He’s a nice enough boy, I’m sure,’ she confided to Jean Clancey, over a pre-Christmas drink at the Top and Whistle, ‘and pretty as a picture, I’ll say that for him. But it’s not the same!’ What, for Mickey, was ‘not the same’ was left to the sympathetic imaginings of her friend. For Bridget, certainly, it was different having Zahin in the house. In her adult life, Bridget had lived for any space of time with no one other than Peter. She had graduated early from shared flats and had gone without the things other people find essential in order to be able to afford a place on her own. The early days with Peter had sometimes ragged Bridget’s nerves. She had found it tiresome when Peter would ask questions when she was engrossed in her book, or demand immediate help in searching out missing socks or journals; or, on one occasion, an old copy of Wisden in which he wanted to look up some ancient cricket score. This last had tried Bridget’s patience too far and she had remarked, rather acidly, that she hoped he was not going to make use of their relationship to become ‘infantile’. Peter had sulked for several days until by a mixture, on her part, of unvarying good temper and ignoring his ill one, harmony had been restored. It was eight weeks to the day from Peter’s death that Zahin had appeared. In those eight weeks Bridget had found that on the occasions when she was not either missing Peter, or, as she had intimated to Frances, had been unable to believe that his absence was to be permanent, she had failed to recover her old pleasure in her own company. It was true that it was theoretically pleasant to be able to do as you liked; but what she liked was compromised by an awful, lowering sense of futility which had insinuated itself into everything. Without quite recognising that she was doing so, she had turned the beam of her attention towards her husband, whose regular little demands had first irritated, then amused and finally made up much of the regular substance of her life. Now, without spectacles and missing papers to find, calls to make, tickets to order, diets to cook for—Peter had been prone to hypochondria, which had expressed itself in various and often conflicting culinary regimes—she felt dry as dust. The tears the boy had wept so bitterly in her kitchen had somehow fallen upon that ‘dried-up’ feeling, so that when he spoke of his being at a loss where to live it was not merely sympathy for his plight which had led her to say, ‘You can come and stay with me, if you like,’—though caution made her add, ‘until you find something more settled.’ Zahin had given an impression which had reminded her of the occasion when she had bestowed Peter’s ‘bequest’ on Mickey: he accepted her suggestion without protest, as if it were his due. Mr Hansome, he told her, had also said that if necessary he could stay at his house with him. The news of this offer, and the fact that Peter had evidently neglected to mention that there was also a Mrs Hansome who might need to be consulted on such a matter, had neither surprised nor angered Bridget. She was used to Peter’s quixotic moods: had the boy actually turned up while Peter was alive, he might easily have denied the fact that any such suggestion had been made by him. ‘Nonsense, the lad’s making it up,’ he quite likely would have exclaimed—and Bridget would have had to suggest that in the circumstances it would not inconvenience them greatly if the boy stayed a night or two. In a sense, then, she was doing no more than she might have done anyway, in proposing that Zahin bring his things over from the flat where he had been living in St John’s Wood in time for Christmas Day. I might as well have someone to cook Christmas dinner for, she thought, conscious that this was solving a problem for her which she had not looked forward to having to face. Frances, who was accustomed to making her Christmas arrangements in time to avoid the sense of aloneness which Bridget was experiencing for the first time, spent the festival with her brother’s family. Her brother was a judge on one of the northern circuits and lived in a large house in Northumberland. James’s family was large too—also his wife. She and the five girls were good-hearted and energetic—‘excellent people’ a friend had once called them. It is a sad fact that ‘excellent people’ are often dull. Frances, who began her visits to her brother’s home with a pang of envy, usually left the substantial household with a stab of relief: the peace and quiet, if loneliness, of Turnham Green was at least air she could breathe freely. What with the Northumberland visit and the recovery from it, it was some days into the new year before Frances finally called by with a present for Bridget. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said frankly, ‘I was too busy to call by sooner. It’ll have to be a New Year’s gift.’ There was a particular reason why she had felt reluctant to see Bridget before Christmas: for the last five years Peter had found time to visit Frances on Christmas Eve. Bridget, who had already worked out that it must have been Frances over whom Peter had made up the Christmas Eve excuses, had bought her nothing for Christmas. Unwrapping the gift, a glazed dish, which she recognised as bearing a likeness to a dish which Peter had been ‘given by a customer at work’ one previous Christmas, Bridget surmised that what was being presented to her had been originally bought for Peter. Frances looked the type to plan ahead for Christmas. ‘How nice,’ she said, without enthusiasm, ‘a bowl.’ Then, catching sight of Frances’s hand clenching the back of a chair, ‘Peter would have liked this—it’s the sort of thing he often brought home.’ Frances flushed: the frosty jibe didn’t escape her. She said, rather strained, ‘Did your Christmas go well? How was it with the boy?’ ‘You can meet him.’ Bridget called out, ‘Zahin! Come and meet a friend of Mr Hansome’s.’ Her voice was surprisingly guttural; Frances wondered if Peter had found it sexy. When the boy came through the door she almost gasped aloud at his beauty. ‘Heavens,’ she couldn’t help exclaiming, ‘where ever did you get those eyes, child?’ Zahin, to whom nothing, Bridget had observed, was a compliment said only, ‘My mother’s people come from near the Caspian Sea. They have blue eyes. Mrs Hansome, may I have some milk?’ ‘Help yourself.’ In his white shirt, pouring milk, he looked, Frances thought, like some cool-toned modern painting—maybe Hockney? ‘Frances knew Mr Hansome, Zahin.’ Intrigued that Peter seemed to have become ‘Mister’, Frances asked, ‘How did you know—er, Mr Hansome, Zahin?’ ‘It was through his work,’ said Bridget, smoothly. ‘Remember, I told you—Zahin was one of the families the firm sponsored.’ Peter had confessed to Frances that being confined to England made him restless. Frances, conscious of—indeed, benefiting from—Bridget’s own trips abroad, had sometimes wondered why Peter’s wife had not noticed that he, too, might have done with a more regular change of scene. Now she said, ‘Where is the Caspian Sea? My geography’s hopeless.’ The boy was swilling his milk in the glass, watching the viscous surface slew round the side. His blue eyes stared at Frances for a second. Then he said, placidly, ‘The part my mother came from is now Iran. My mother is from the old Median people.’ It was as if he were speaking of someone known to him long ago. ‘The Medians are very ancient,’ Bridget said. As usual, Frances thought, she seemed to know all about it. Noticing that Bridget had plonked the bowl down on the dresser and was carelessly brushing crumbs from the surface around it, Frances suddenly burst out with, ‘You needn’t keep the bowl if you don’t want it, Bridget. It was silly of me to think of giving it to you. Mistake.’ There was a silence during which the three people in the room all looked at the bowl. Bridget had been correct in her hunch that Frances had planned to give the Chinese bowl to Peter. Taking it down from the wardrobe shelf, where she amassed her Christmas gifts, she had debated what to do with it: to keep it seemed ghoulish; also, it would be a gesture to give something to Bridget: the thought had given substance to Frances’s wish to be generous to Peter’s widow. ‘It is beautiful.’ The boy’s words spoken into the charged atmosphere had the quality of some bell—whose authority was no less for its comparative softness—rung as part of some obscure but picturesque ritual. ‘I would like to have it in my room. May I, please?’ Bridget was rummaging in a drawer. She said without looking at Frances, ‘If Miss Slater doesn’t mind…’ ‘Frances,’ said Frances firmly—she had had enough of this ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’ business. ‘Please, Zahin, do call me Frances. Of course I don’t “mind”—it was intended as a present. I just thought maybe Bridget had enough dishes…’ Bridget had found Mickey’s bath cubes. ‘Here you are, present for you.’ Zahin had finished his milk. He walked round the table to the bowl and picked it up, turning it over with delicate fingers. ‘The colour is blue—like heaven.’ He looked at Frances and she saw how his eyes had the same blue opacity. Bridget said suddenly, ‘Well now, I’ll leave you two to sort it out,’ and left the kitchen. Zahin gently put the bowl down on the table. The silver-bell-like voice spoke again. ‘You and Mr Hansome, you were sweethearts…?’ 7 (#) Frances and Peter had been away together only a few times. Twice she had travelled with him to Scotland, where Peter had gone for business reasons. On those two occasions they had stayed in the Edinburgh flat of an old school friend of Peter’s, a bachelor who travelled abroad, and was grateful to have the flat occupied during his frequent absences. Nor was he fussy about the moral conduct of his guests. Another occasion had been when they had gone to Paris. The visit to Paris had remained to Frances a kind of touchstone of what people meant by being ‘happy’. They had stayed on the Left Bank, in a cramped, almost drab hotel—so dim was its lighting, so very ancient its threadbare furnishings. It was in Paris that Peter had begun to call her ‘France’ the diminutive which he alone was allowed—all other, and previous, attempts, such as ‘Francie’, or ‘Fran’, or, once—quite frightfully—‘Frannie’, having been instantly squashed by one of her looks—the ‘basilisk look’ Peter called it. There had been only one other to whom any abbreviated form of address had been permitted: her brother—not James, the judge, but her younger-by-two-years brother Hugh, who had been killed on his motorbike when she was nineteen. Hugh had driven the bike full tilt into the stone gatepost of the country house of a friend, whose family was grand enough to own a drive down which one could drive at 70 mph. Hugh had also called her ‘France’; that there had existed certain resemblances between Hugh and Peter was a secret which was now known only to Frances. Perhaps it was that likeness to her younger brother which had prompted a kind of playfulness with Peter. In Paris they had been like children: it was cold, and Frances had taught him how to keep warm by skipping, and hand in hand they had skipped along by the Seine looking, as Peter had said, ‘like geriatric kids!’ But they had had their moments as lovers too. It was on a morning after a night of lovemaking that she had wakened to find Peter, in his socks, about to tiptoe from the room. The lovemaking had been of the kind which routs paranoia, so her first thought was not, as it might have been: He is leaving me! Instead she said, still half asleep, ‘Where in the world are you off to at this hour?’ and he, slightly embarrassed, had murmured, ‘Mass. Go back to sleep.’ Frances had submissively rolled down the dip in the aged mattress. When Peter returned she was propped up against an unyielding bolster reading about Matisse. ‘It’s nice when one’s prejudices are confirmed,’ she said, noticing his slight awkwardness. ‘I always suspected Picasso was a bastard. He encouraged his toadies to throw darts at poor Matisse’s paintings.’ Then, seeing he was still fiddling with the change in his pocket, ‘I waited breakfast for you—I must love you a whole lot because, frankly, my dear, after last night I’m ravenous!’ At that, Matisse was tipped to the floor and it had been some time, after all, before breakfast was ordered. She had not enquired about the Mass, sensing that this was a subject which, if it was to be raised at all, must be so by him. And two nights later, over dinner in a restaurant in Montmartre, he did himself bring it up. ‘When I was in Notre-Dame,’ he dropped the name casually, ‘there was a beggar woman some rows in front of me—pretty tatty and quite niffy, I should think. When it came to the Sign of Peace everyone kissed her or shook her hand most courteously.’ They were discussing declining standards of manners in Britain. ‘But mightn’t that be true also at an English service?’ She was shy of speaking the word ‘Mass’. ‘Maybe. But afterwards she was looking a bit unsteady on her pins and a young man, a very well-dressed young man—good clothes—took her arm and helped her down the aisles outside. He wasn’t a relative, or anything to do with her—I was watching: he went off afterwards in a quite different direction.’ ‘Do you think it’s their being French or being Catholic that makes the difference?’ she had said, feeling bold enough to broach the topic. And he had replied, quite casually, ‘I’m a Catholic, if it comes to that, but I’m not sure I have their manners—really, it does seem to be a different culture here.’ That Bridget was unaware of her husband’s faith was something which Frances had suspected before Peter’s death. Just as well, as it turned out, for otherwise, she could have put her foot in it. Peter could never have guessed that the two would become such intimates—if that was what they were, for ‘friends’ did not quite capture it—no, ‘friends’ wasn’t it at all, Frances thought, leaving the house that afternoon when the young man had so disarmingly referred to her and Peter as ‘sweethearts’. ‘Sweethearts, we are sweethearts,’ Peter had said to her. In the ‘childlike’ spirit he had bought her a bag of coloured sugar hearts. How could that young Iranian have known? Frances, nostalgically remembering the sagging French bed and the hard usage they had put it to, wondered again if it was the lovemaking which had occasioned that early-morning visit Peter had made to Notre-Dame… Bridget, as it happens, had found a rosary hidden in one of the small interior drawers of the oak desk but she had thought little about it: Peter was a man who collected talismans—worry beads from Greece, Maori carvings from New Zealand, fragments of lichen-covered marble from abandoned Turkish temples. Rosary beads were merely one among the many superstitious fetishes which had accumulated at the close of Peter’s truncated life. To the end of that life Bridget remained ignorant of her husband’s faith and her own role in his observance of it. Without other information to go on Bridget had chosen the cremation service for Peter on the basis of her own preferences. It would suit her to become ashes—‘ashes’ was what she, herself, felt like; to have her husband rendered into an ashy condition seemed perfectly acceptable. She enjoyed shocking the cremation officials by asking scientific questions about what the post-cremation remains were actually composed of. ‘What about the coffin?’ she had asked, when solemnly presented with the casket. ‘Solid oak—I paid through the nose for it. How can I tell which of the cinders is expensive coffin and which dead husband?’ In fact Peter’s attendance at the Paris Mass had not arisen, except in an indirect sense, from the night’s abandonment with Frances. Mistresses fill many needs, not exclusively sexual, and if truth were told Peter had often found more satisfaction in making love to Bridget than to Frances. This was not due to any deficit in Frances, other than a sensitivity in her which Peter sometimes found daunting. If Bridget’s wordless and robust responses suited him better, it was because they relieved him of the requirement to worry about how she was finding things. Not that he would ever think of revealing this to Frances—he was not without sensitivity himself, and it was alive to him that it was as a desirable lover that she gained part of her self-esteem. Nor was it something he could say that the morning visit to Notre-Dame had nothing to do with their unusually satisfactory time in bed. On the whole, Peter restricted his extramarital activities to those times when his wife was away—her absence, he might have argued, legitimising any steps he took to make time pass without her less disturbing. As he had frankly told his mistress, he loved his wife and made his own efforts to behave honourably to her. But honour is not a commodity you can ration: almost by definition there is a place for honour towards one’s mistress as well. Honour, however, is not the only engine of erotic escapades; and perhaps this is as well since history suggests actions performed for lofty motives are more likely to be dangerous than those performed for selfish ones. Peter may not have noticed this himself but he took his mistress to France after a period during which his wife had visited that same country three times in as many months. Bridget, busy buying for an international antiques fair, had made more than her usual quota of trips abroad: there was a current craze for rural French cribs and she had tracked down a number of possible sources; then there was the old lace she had been partly responsible for making fashionable—and wicker garden furniture was making a comeback. She set off on these trips, often in the small hours of the morning, leaving Peter to the ostensible care of Mickey. So, Peter might have argued to himself, if he chose to take Frances, who was looking peaky after a bout of flu, to Paris, it could be said that his wife had left the door fairly open to that possibility. Yet, waking in the musty erotic aftermath in the Paris hotel, beside Frances’s warm body, Peter had felt the painful lance of remorse; it was this which had taken him out into the pearl-quiet morning and along by the placidly flowing Seine to the service in the cathedral where the light, filtering the amethyst and blue of the great north rose window, hinted, he reflected as he bent his knees, at some oblique promise of a life to come. Perhaps it was the effect of that sincere blue light which had prompted him to tell Frances, over the intimate Montmartre dinner, the tale of the young man’s courtesy to the beggar woman, the story which had harbingered the admission of his faith. The next day they had passed a flower seller, where Frances had pointed to some brilliantly coloured flowers—pink, red and the lambent blue and purple of the stained glass in Notre-Dame. ‘Look, lilies of the field! Did you know they were anemones?’ Happy that, for the moment, his faith had lain down like a lamb with his worldlier self, he listened as his lover explained that this was the flower in the parable which, arrayed like ‘Solomon in all his glory’, had no need to toil or spin. On that misty October morning when the journalist friend telephoned with news of the fatal accident, the biblical flowers came into Frances’s mind. Peter had said, ‘They’re awfully merry,’ and he had bought her a bunch, adding casually, ‘when I die, you can send me some of these.’ In the split second before he died Peter remembered these words, and remembered that, unlike Bridget, Frances had not disputed the likelihood of his death. 8 (#) ‘Does Zahin know about me and Peter?’ Frances asked. They had been shifting furniture for hours. The coolness over the Christmas bowl had been patched up—or, more accurately, had been passed over, since neither woman wished to be thought undignified. It was Bridget, though, who had made the peacemaking gesture, asking Frances if she was free for a weekend at Farings, the Shropshire house. The cynical part of Frances had suggested, when she arrived at the slightly austere brick house, that she had maybe been invited as a useful pair of hands. Bridget had piled a whole lot of furniture into the downstairs rooms with no apparent plan as to where it was to end up. Frances had hauled and dragged, pushed and shifted until her back and ribs protested. Finally she sat down on a roll of carpet. ‘Where am I sleeping, as a matter of interest?’ ‘Hell!’ said Bridget. ‘I forgot. No bed.’ ‘What?’ ‘There’s only one bed—I was planning to bring one of the ones from the shop—it’s a sweetheart bed, with intertwined hearts on the head and foot. But I never picked it up.’ ‘Uh-huh,’ said Frances. ‘Sweetheart’ made her think of the boy’s odd, telepathic comment. Which was when she asked, ‘Does Zahin know about me and Peter?’ But Bridget was preoccupied with the sleeping arrangements. ‘There’s the sofa but I don’t even think I’ve brought enough bedding—damn.’ ‘Don’t bother,’ said Frances, coolly, ‘I can stay at the hotel.’ She suspected the forgotten bed and bedding were a ploy and that Bridget preferred her not to sleep in the house after all. Bridget, sensing this, said, ‘The hotel’s closed down—I noticed as we were passing—the nearest other one’s miles away. But if you didn’t mind we could always share—I mean, it’s a big bed, it was Peter’s and mine!’ Looking at Frances she started to laugh, and Frances, seated on the dust-filled Indian carpet, caught the mood and began to laugh too. Helplessly, the two women wheezed and Bridget all but rolled about the room. ‘Oh dear,’ said Frances, wiping tears from her eyes—brought on as much by the dusty carpet as the laughter. ‘We’ll be able to tell no one—people will think—I don’t know what they’d think!’ ‘Who cares?’ Bridget was soberer now. ‘What would Peter think?’ Frances asked as a while later together they made the bed upstairs. Bridget reflected a moment. Outside, through the west-facing window, the far hills were turning indigo—‘blue remembered’, she thought, like Housman’s. ‘He’d have been sorry not to be joining us,’ she finally announced. It was not that Bridget had failed to hear Frances’s question about Zahin but that she had decided to ignore it. She hadn’t yet assembled her impressions of the boy. Christmas had been…she needed time to ponder… Except in the first years of their marriage, Christmas with Peter had never been a tranquil event. Bridget’s consciousness of a regular Christmas Eve assignation, long before she met the object of it, caused her bridled indignation. To say she was without ill feelings towards Peter’s other ‘associations’—as it was her habit to call them—would have been stretching a point. Possibly there are people large-hearted enough to offer perfect charity towards those with whom they are asked to share the person of their beloved; but purity must be its own reward: while commendable it is hardly interesting, and anyhow Bridget was not among this angelic band. On the other hand, she had learned the dangers of bearing grudges. Bridget had been born and bred in Limerick, in the south-west of Ireland. Her father had been tricked by a phantom pregnancy into an ill-matched wedding. When, in time, a child was eventually born, she received the brunt of a resentment which had had five years in which to accrue. Among families, resentment is often expressed indirectly. To Joseph Dwyer’s fear of his wife was added an even greater fear of her brother, Father Eamonn, priest to the neighbouring parish and spoken of as ‘episcopal’—even ‘cardinal’—material. Unhappily for Bridget, her father kept his interior rage for the family who had curtailed his snappy-bachelor freedom, while he vented it more openly upon his daughter. Bridget was born curious. She questioned her mother, her grandparents—who lived a village away—her uncle the priest, her teachers—most of all she questioned her father, to the point where her mother finally abetted her daughter’s flight from home, lest, as Moira Dwyer confessed to her brother, ‘there be a murder in the house’. That there was not a murder was due to Bridget’s early discovery that life tends to be unyielding to our desires. She was unusual in perceiving so soon the gap between what we want and what is possible; more remarkable still, in time she came to recognise the distinction between what she felt was her due and what was actually on offer—a distinction which stood her in good stead when, years later, on Christmas mornings, having returned late from Turnham Green, her husband would say, in varying accents of agitation, ‘I’m sure I did buy you something—no, hang on, I know I did—let me think a moment while I remember where I put it…’ or ‘Good God, have I left it behind in the shop…?’ All this might have been easier to accommodate had not Bridget, not meaning to pry, once come across a small box, which curiosity had made her open and which had shockingly revealed a costly looking square-cut sapphire ring, a particularly brilliant blue. It was, in fact, the sight of this ring on Frances’s finger, which had sparked the moment of tension over the Christmas bowl. Seeing it, Bridget had felt a return of the nauseous rush of jealousy which had accompanied the original discovery of the ring in its expensive leather hiding place. Christmas with Zahin could hardly have been more different. He had arrived, with his things from St John’s Wood, late in the day on Christmas Eve. How in that short space of time he had managed so to infer her tastes and buy accordingly, Bridget could never fathom. She had popped out and bought him a rather dull shirt, feeling that to do more on such a short acquaintance would be overdoing it. But no such reserve had apparently constrained Zahin. Bridget had woken on Christmas morning to find a pile of glitteringly wrapped gifts at the foot of her bed. Wonder vying with a sense of slight fear—caused by the appearance of something at once so long desired and so unexpected—she had gathered up the colourful, gleaming parcels and returned, like a child, with them to bed. Here she undid swathes of tissue paper with the astonishment of one schooled in deprivation. Silk scarves, silver bangles, a stole, scent, a gilt peacock, a leather-bound diary, a pair of velvet slippers—it was like produce from some fabulous dream, or bazaar in the Arabian Nights. Downstairs in her kitchen she found Zahin had also been at work. The table was laid with a length of some old lace he must have found in the linen cupboard and adorned with scarlet poinsettias, pink azaleas, golden roses. The smell of superior coffee mingled with the scent of roses to perfume the room, like incense from some exotic temple. ‘Zahin?’ ‘O Mrs Hansome,’ the boy had cried. ‘How pretty you look! It suits you—look how it suits your colouring!’ Bridget, who had strung the scarves round her neck and wound the stole round her shoulders, glanced over to where he had gestured towards the long glass which hung by the kitchen door. It was a glass which Peter had used to scrutinise his carefully accoutred frame, before meeting the world. Handsome is as handsome does—her own mocking words came back to her, ‘Zahin—I am overwhelmed. There was no need for all this.’ ‘But I like to.’ The boy spoke with an odd note of authority. ‘Now, I make you coffee, and toast. You like jam, honey? See, I have also made pancakes.’ Bridget had not noticed the sapphire ring again until Frances took it off and placed it in a saucer beside the bed at Farings before visiting the bathroom. Bridget waited until Frances had left the bedroom and then examined the ring under the bedside light. No doubt about it—it was the same. She considered stealing it and then denying all knowledge. But what would she do then—throw it away? She could hardly wear it herself! Or she could raise the matter with Frances and they could have a tremendous row. That might be satisfying but in the end she felt she couldn’t be bothered. ‘Turn out the light when you’re ready,’ she said when Frances came back, steamy, from the bathroom, and surprisingly middle-aged in a washed-out candlewick dressing gown. ‘I’ve put a bolster between us in case one of us kicks.’ ‘I don’t kick.’ Frances was not looking forward to a night spent with Bridget. ‘Well, I can.’ Peter had said so. But Bridget kept this from Frances. Turning her back to her bed companion, she had a sudden flash of Peter’s face, should he see them there—his mistress and his wife—tucked up together in his bed. That night Peter Hansome did indeed come to the room where the two women lay side by side in the bed which had once been his. For some while he remained looking down at their sleeping forms. Then, when a cock crowed, and the green dawn light began to seep through the curtains, he vanished back whence he had come. 9 (#) Frances had wondered whether it was wise to wear the sapphire ring to Farings. Apart from other considerations it hardly seemed polite. But she was also apprehensive, staying in Bridget’s house, and glimpses of the blue square offered little oases of reassurance. Peter had given Frances the sapphire the Christmas after Paris. Opening the compact leather box she had exclaimed, ‘Notre-Dame blue!’ which made Peter, who had worried, pleased he had bought it after all. It might have surprised Bridget to learn that her husband was aware that, in matters such as this, he might be said to favour his mistress over his wife. Yet, essentially, he was not an unfair man. No one has ever fully explained why humankind so resists a sense of requirement. Perhaps it is this very propensity which constitutes what it means to be ‘human’—certainly it seems to have been at the bottom of the debacle in the Garden of Eden, or so the story goes. In Peter Hansome’s case the tendency expressed itself towards Bridget because she was his wife: within the convention he was reared to she came with perceived obligations. He did not allow his inability to be demonstrative when it was expected of him to trouble him much of the time; but times of celebration, especially Christmas, had the effect of exposing a moral nerve. Peter would not normally have risked his conscience so far by making such a one-sided gesture as the gift of the sapphire ring. It was the extraordinary colour of the stone which had drawn him—that ethereal blue—the colour of Paris. Perhaps—he didn’t know—it was the colour of his soul? If he had a soul… Neither woman knew this but Peter’s hatred of Christmas began when his father had deserted his family on Christmas Eve. His mother had made the best of things—but ‘the best of things’, even when executed with genuine selflessness, often turns out to be worse than selfish protest. From an early age Peter had monitored his mother’s face. That Christmas, undeceived by a not-too-convincing story about ‘Daddy’s business’ calling him away, Peter had watched his mother’s expressions more closely than usual. There had been a horrible moment between the turkey and the Christmas cake—decorated that year with a superfluity of snowmen and hard little silver balls, which Peter afterwards always hated—when he had sleuthed his mother to her bedroom and, through the keyhole, had spied her lying on the bed, her face pressed into a pillow to stifle any sound. Six-year-old Peter had been tactful enough to remove his presence from this private grief, and to hurl himself, with unusual energy, into a distractingly boisterous game with his elder brother, Marcus. He had also been unusually conciliatory with his little sister, Clare, and had played doll’s-house tea with unwonted sweetness which had raised—unfairly in the circumstances—maternal questions later about his state of health. There had been other, happier, Christmases when his mother’s smiles had been less forced, and, later still, his mother’s smiles had become genuine, for a time, when his stepfather, the MP, had first appeared on the scene. But the early loss had fractured for good the young Peter’s capacities for enjoying the ‘season of goodwill’. The pillow which had stifled the mother’s anguish acted as a more permanent block upon the son’s capacity to rejoice. From that time on Peter grew to think of Christmas, and its attendant duties, as dangerous, an ordeal rather than a blessing—one of many—to be ‘got through’. Bridget woke in the bed she had once shared with Peter, left Frances sleeping and went barefoot downstairs to make herself a cup of tea. Outside the kitchen window a flock of goldfinches made a vivid zigzag across the pale wintry field. Bridget stretched and yawned noisily. There were advantages to living alone—Peter, who could be prim, would have grimaced at the sound. What was the collective noun for goldfinches? She had dreamed of Peter—the first time since he had died. She couldn’t bring the dream back but she knew from the feeling in her limbs it was Peter all right. Bridget filled a kettle and looked appraisingly round the kitchen where Frances had hung on nails bags of Italian pasta and some of the large copper French pans. The paint work wasn’t right—too shiny—but with the old brocade curtains she’d been waiting to find a use for, and a lick of distemper, the place would do up fine. She made tea in a big mug, stirring the tea bag to give the brew strength, and stuck her bare feet into boots. Outside, she surveyed the field where the striking looking finches with their gold-flashed wings and crimson foreheads had flown. The bare soil, fringed by bleached grasses, stretched in gleaming furrows where the light struck the early-morning moisture. Frances appeared and began opening cupboard doors. ‘There’s some coffee in that cardboard box.’ From the doorway Bridget pointed. ‘Otherwise there’s tea and some rather mouldy bread in that bag. It must be damp here.’ Maybe she could grow mushrooms? Suddenly she remembered: ‘Charm’, that was it! The term for a flock of goldfinches was a charm. ‘Why do Renaissance paintings of the Virgin have goldfinches in them?’ she asked Frances. Frances wrinkled up her forehead. In the morning light and with her pointed nose she looked quite witchy. ‘The red spot at the top of their heads, isn’t it? The goldfinch fed from the crown of thorns and Christ’s blood anointed its head; I think that’s the story.’ Frances, who had dreamed of Peter too, was also trying to remember the dream. Had he said anything to her? There was something but it was more a mood or a flavour—like the lingering scent left by an interesting visitor. Bridget noticed Frances was not wearing the sapphire. ‘Don’t forget your ring’s upstairs,’ she threw over her shoulder, going back out into the garden. The two women had worked hard all day. ‘That looks better,’ Frances said, looking round the parlour with satisfaction. She had polished the wooden furniture with some beeswax which she had found under the sink, left behind by the house’s former occupants. The doorbell startled them. ‘I’ll get it,’ and Bridget opening the door saw a man with a big slack face and high colouring. Only then did she see the collar. ‘Bill Dark,’ said the man holding out a hand. ‘Rector of St Anselm’s. Called to introduce myself.’ Bridget found a bottle of sherry in one of the boxes they had not yet unpacked and Frances kindled a fire. ‘Mrs Nettles is your nearest neighbour,’ their visitor (‘Call me “Rector Bill”’) said. ‘She’s pushing eighty but spry as anything.’ He pushed his empty glass vaguely in Bridget’s direction. ‘Another?’ Bridget tried not to sound ironic—this was his fifth—sixth? She had lost count. ‘Don’t mind if I do, since you ask.’ Frances, catching the lift of Bridget’s eyebrows, and practised in shifting people from gallery dos, said, ‘My friend is staying here until the morning but I have to get off tonight. Which is the best route, would you say, to the M50?’ ‘Forgive me! Time flies when you’re having fun! I’ll wend my weary way, then, ladies.’ ‘God help us!’ Bridget said, ‘or me, rather, you’re safe. But thanks for that. Look, he’s as good as polished off the bottle—the old bugger!’ She indicated an inch of sherry. ‘Not a “bugger” anyway—he was looking at your bosom pretty lecherously. Look, I’m going to have to grab a slice of bread and cheese and scoot.’ Frances was genuinely regretful. She had been looking forward to talking to Bridget in the parlour she herself had polished. Now there was no chance to enjoy her own virtue. Bridget pointed the way down the drive with her torch. ‘Goodbye,’ she yelled. ‘And thanks again. I’ll ring you!’ ‘Take care!’ Frances called back. She declutched and drove carefully down the sticky lane. Peter monitored Frances’s departure then hurried back into the house to hover over Bridget as she finished off the sherry. This business of watching over his consorts was proving a responsibility… 10 (#) Journeys offer opportunity for reflection. Driving back to London, Frances allowed the night’s events to seep into her mind. She eyed the square blue gem on the fourth finger of her right hand—the ring finger of the unattached—as it grasped the wheel. Well, there were worse things than unattachment. It had been less of an ordeal than she had expected to share a bed with Peter’s widow…‘Widow’—what a word! Bridget wouldn’t thank her for it! How funny she should have spent the night dreaming of passionate sexual congress with Peter. The dream reminded her of Paris—perhaps it was because she had been wearing the sapphire…? Back at Farings, Bridget was also considering the insubstantial. She had found, and opened, a second bottle of sherry which she was downing, with bread and cheese, by the fire. The dream she had had in the bed with Frances was also filtering back: in this case there had been no vigorous coupling; rather, a walk—down a lane where purple flowers were growing—near Farings, she felt it was…? Bridget was not the sort to analyse her dreams but she wondered if this one had some message for her. Perhaps it meant she should settle here? Give up the shop and the house next door to Mickey and up sticks altogether now she was, more or less, alone. If she was alone. There was Frances, and Mickey, too, of course—and then there was the boy. Bridget had never wanted children so she was relieved rather than disappointed when it became clear that Peter was a far from paternal man. His children—a boy and girl—by his former wife seemed to embarrass him. They came to stay at weekends during which everyone behaved with unnatural stiffness and Bridget was thankful when the time came for them to be returned to their mother’s house in Barnes: she could hardly bear the sight of Peter trying so hard—with so little aptitude—to be jolly. Peter’s first wife had remarried—a solicitor in a City firm—and she was now buffered by demonstrable prosperity. Nevertheless, she continued to receive Peter—still more Bridget, should Bridget happen to be the one to chauffeur the children home—in the manner of a mendicant, whose impoverishment should be laid at the door of her former husband. Hopeless to try and suggest—as Bridget did—that his children’s mother’s attitude was injurious, not only to relations with their father but also to the children themselves. As Bridget came to see, Peter did not greatly care what his children felt or thought about him. She suspected they irked him; and that he was glad when the regular visits tailed off and he was released from the pressures of family obligation. The children, now adults, had appeared at the funeral and the girl had cried, mildly obedient to some atavistic sense of her loss—while the young man, a stockbroker in the City, in his new dark suit had hung his head sheepishly. Bridget had felt sorry for them: they had no language with which to mourn their father. Their mother, Peter’s former wife, had sent a massy wreath of ostentatious whiteness, and a card with sentiments on it which had left Bridget particularly cold. No, there was little enough love lost between Peter and his children which is why it was mildly surprising to discover his attachment to Zahin. Back in London Mickey said to Jean, ‘It doesn’t seem right that boy having a girl round there like that with Bridget not at home. I don’t know if I should say anything.’ ‘Perhaps she said he could?’ Jean was more phlegmatic than her friend. ‘What if she didn’t?’ ‘Girlfriends aren’t any harm, are they?’ Jean didn’t think Bridget seemed the type to lay down draconian rules. ‘She looked a forward little thing if you ask me. All tarted up in them platform heels, with what you could see of her BTM—which wasn’t much of one anyway—stuck out. And plastered all over in make-up. A young girl does better showing off her own skin, in my view.’ ‘It’s the way with modern girls…’ Jean’s more charitable nature suggested. ‘Better say nothing this time,’ Mickey decided. ‘But if it’s going to keep on happening, I’ll have to. My conscience wouldn’t let me off otherwise,’ she concluded with stark satisfaction. 11 (#) Bridget had not started back to London as early as she had planned. The chimney had smoked and she had taken time to ring round the Yellow Pages in search of a sweep. A Mr Godwin was found who promised to visit when she returned in a fortnight. And she lingered on after the matter of the chimney had been resolved, dawdling and watching the rooks, reluctant to have to make the effort of the drive. Zahin was at the gate when Bridget arrived and took the holdall from her. ‘Zahin! How did you know I was back?’ ‘Instinct, Mrs Hansome.’ She had tried, and failed, to get him to call her ‘Bridget’. ‘I didn’t even know myself when I would get here.’ ‘The traffic was heavy.’ He had a way, she noticed, of making questions statements. ‘As life!’ ‘You are tired. Come in, please, and relax.’ Sitting with a glass of Jameson, Bridget thought: If only Peter could see this! Chaotic himself, he had the obsessional nature which sees chaos in others’ mess but not his own. Bridget was no housewife and Peter’s fussy comments had been a source of ruffled feelings. Yet now, with Peter gone and unable to appreciate it, the house gleamed with the patina of dedicated care. Upstairs a bath was running and a scent drifted down to her. ‘Zahin, what is that you have put in my bath?’ she called upstairs. ‘I bought it in the King’s Road, Mrs Hansome. Meadow flowers—it is very you!’ Flowers had been in the dream of Peter. Or had they? The mind played tricks—she was aware of the human tendency to weave ‘reality’ out of wishes. ‘You are too kind,’ she called again. Zahin’s politeness was catching. ‘Oh, but it is not kind to look after one who is beautiful!’ Zahin had appeared at the top of the stairs which, in the Hansomes’ house, descended to the sitting room. Bridget had taken time to persuade Peter that the removal of a wall, and the inclusion of the space which had been the hall and stairway into the living area, would give an added dimension and light, but it took Zahin, standing like a model or a film star, to show off the alteration. He was dressed in a vivid blue silk shirt which Bridget had not noticed when he appeared so miraculously at the gate, and which brought out the colour of his eyes. ‘Zahin,’ she said, ‘that is called hyperbole.’ But she was not displeased. She was not beautiful, nor had ever been—but it was a long while since anyone had even pretended that she might be. ‘Oh, but you are.’ The boy was down the stairs now and plumping cushions. Bridget could make out the shoulder blades which she had fancied resembled incipient wings. ‘Beautiful in your spirit. I see it.’ He stared at her and to her chagrin she found she was blushing. ‘Get away, child!’ she said, and his voice followed her as she hurried up the stairs, ‘I know what hyperbole is, Mrs Hansome—and it isn’t you!’ No, indeed, she thought, lying in the bath, where she had brought up the tumbler of golden whisky, she was not much given to exaggeration. Peter had, one had to admit it, embroidered—improved on life, as he might, if challenged, have put it. But she herself did not wish such improvements. Not for reasons of greater honesty than her husband (about human honesty, even her own, Bridget was firmly sceptical) but because it wasn’t safe, she felt, to polish things up, or dim them down. Not to name things as you found them put you more at their mercy… If Peter Hansome had not named things quite as he found them it was because he had problems discerning them clearly in the first place. Reality may be singular but the sense of it is not, and ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’ refers to more than simple taste. ‘A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees’ perhaps puts it better. Many conflicts of opinion can be explained by the fact that perceptual systems depend on the personalities of the perceivers. In Peter’s case, behind all his responses lurked a chronic panic, which coloured—or obscured—his apprehension of reality. Although he would never have owned to it he could not forget that day when half his known world walked away and left him. From this moment, he had constructed a personality upon which such a loss had made no obvious dent; but this did not mean that the dent had not been planted. As a child the knock had made for a wary caution. In time, and with training, the wariness had become overlaid with an acceptable veneer, one in which a kind of genial sociability acted as a polished surface which deflected intimacy; but the most significant feature of his character was that at bottom he was frightened of people. It takes a rare man to know he is afraid—and why. Peter was not aware that he was fearful of other people’s power to remove themselves, nor that he had chosen Bridget because although she exuded a power which did not always make him feel comfortable, it did not, at least, feel as if it might desert him. And in this he was correct. That he was capable of being harmed, perhaps mortally, through loss of another’s love, was a secret, even from himself. Dormant and lethal, it lay hidden at the centre of Peter’s universe, until the October day when the truck driver adjusted his cassette and exploded Peter’s former reality. It is part of nature’s way to meet threat with superfluity: toads puff up their skin, snakes rear, peacocks rattle and spread their tails; the habit of hyperbole is but another version of this florid system of defence. Lying in her bath, inhaling the scent of meadow flowers, Bridget remembered Peter, late one Christmas Eve, returning, as she now understood, from seeing Frances. She heard again the familiar accent of anxiety, concerned to account for time which could not be accounted for except by honesty or omission—‘I would have been home earlier but there was an accident on the M4—terrible catastrophe—I shouldn’t be surprised if someone got killed!’—and wept for the way life had apparently taken him at his word. 12 (#) The Soho gallery which Frances managed, dealt, among other contemporary artists, in the works of Patrick Painter. Although Frances did not own the gallery she was indispensable to its running: it was understood that without her skills Gambit Galleries would never have hung on to its most prestigious name. There were rules for dealing with Patrick Painter: you did not call him before noon; you never enquired about his health, or his financial affairs, and no one was permitted to comment on his name. A journalist from a respected broadsheet had lost a promised interview because he had been unable to refrain from audibly murmuring, ‘Painter by name…’ Frances, who arrived too late to prevent this outrage, explained, ‘It is not his own name, you see. It was his stepfather’s—they didn’t get on.’ ‘Why for Christ’s sake didn’t he change it then, if it offends him so much?’ the aggrieved young journalist had asked, conscious of the hole in the copy this upset would make, and doubly conscious of his editor’s displeasure. Painter lived in Isleworth with his mother and his tortoises. Frances had sometimes speculated that the mother and the tortoises occupied interchangeable places in the artist’s mind. It was to visit Painter that Monday morning that Frances had returned the previous evening from Shropshire. When Painter asked to see Frances, it was generally to seek her view on some painting on which he was stuck. As with everything to do with him these meetings involved a certain amount of ritual before a hint of anything to do with work-in-hand could be broached. ‘So you’ve deigned to come and see me, have you?’ Painter said, meeting her at the front door and indicating she should go ahead into the front room. ‘About bloody time, too!’ He swept a chair free of a pile of unsorted magazines and papers. Paradoxically, the house, although apparently a tremendous muddle, always had an ordering effect on Frances, a product, she supposed, of the fact that the house itself made up much of the subject matter of the artist’s orderly paintings. There was some to-do about the biscuits—the tin could not be found. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the ginger nuts. What has the bloody bitch done with them?’ Frances was used to this. ‘If by that you mean Mrs Hicks, I think it most unlikely she has done anything. I expect you’ve eaten them.’ She looked about the Formica-covered kitchen until she found a tin with a picture of the Queen with her corgis on it. ‘These shortbread, will they do?’ ‘At a pinch—but you would prefer ginger nuts…?’ Frances said she’d prefer not to have a biscuit at all lest she grew fat. ‘Rubbish, you have no arse to speak of.’ ‘Well, I hope to keep things that way.’ ‘Nonsense, a woman should have a decent arse.’ Other than the nude models he must have drawn from in his pre-abstract days, Frances doubted Painter had ever had anything to do with a woman’s bottom. Nevertheless, because he seemed to like it, she kept up the myth of his erotic interests. ‘Where are the tortoises? Are they out of hibernation?’ ‘Fred is—Ginger is still comatose, lazy cow.’ ‘Can one call a tortoise “cow”?’ Frances was not deceived by Painter’s habits of speech: she knew him to be a man of warm, if secret, sensibility. After Peter was killed she had found herself ringing the artist in need of the kindness which lay beneath the superficial savageness. Also, he was from Cork and she liked an Irish accent. Maybe that was why she got on with Bridget…? Painter had got round to his current fix. ‘It’s this effing catastrophe,’ he complained, indicating a canvas composed of tiny delicately painted squares of lilac—recognisably a mutation of the hall wallpaper. ‘Look at it, will you just—I’ll have to destroy the whole bollocking thing.’ ‘Maybe it just needs some balance,’ said Frances carefully. She had decided long ago that it didn’t much matter what one said to Painter about his pictures—all that was required was to sound as if what was said made sense. What was important was that Painter felt safe in showing her uncompleted work. It was like being the stooge to a highly strung comic—he relied on her to feed him the right lines. ‘No, no, no, no,’ said Painter, falling into the familiar patter, ‘it’s vile, vile—I’ll have to ditch it.’ ‘Hmm,’ said Frances, ‘I see what you mean—but it would be a pity.’ They stood side by side and stared at the canvas. Frances had noticed before that Patrick was nice to be near: he gave one space; there was no crowding in—or pulling away. A tortoise, presumably Fred, ambled through the door and rested where a patch of sun lit up the pattern of the carpet. ‘“Gaming in a gap of sunlight”,’ said Painter resting his foot on the tortoise’s back. ‘I’ll scrap it then, shall I?’ This was the crucial moment. Frances gambled, ‘Maybe you’re right…’ ‘Or maybe I could do something with it,’ said Painter, quickly. ‘What do you think?’ ‘I think you generally know.’ ‘That’s all right then,’ said Painter relieved. ‘Glad we sorted that out. Damn that tart—I could do with a ginger nut.’ Frances walked down to the corner shop with Painter where he bought Typhoo tea, ‘Extra strength’, and two packets of biscuits. The woman in the shop said, ‘You still want the Sunday Sport, Mr Pinter?’ ‘Pinter?’ asked Frances outside. ‘What’s this?’ A sly smile spread over Painter’s face. ‘Their mistake, not my doing. She thinks I’m Harold Pinter. Writes plays,’ he added helpfully. ‘I know he’s a playwright—a highly civilised one. What’s going on?’ ‘It’s an identity swap,’ said Painter, slightly sheepish. ‘When the silly cow took over from the Patels they told her I was famous—and she read the name as Pinter. She’s got a daughter doing Media Arts at Luton. I can’t help it if the woman’s a star-fucker.’ ‘Is that why you’re ordering the Sunday Sport?’ asked Frances, light dawning. ‘Honestly, Patrick, how infantile!’ 13 (#) If an impression has been given that Peter Hansome was not a particularly brave man it would be misleading. At boarding school he passed through the ordeal of separation from home and familiars without even the sharpest-eyed, and most malicious, of his peers noticing that the experience left him feeling he was bleeding alive. More heroic still, he resisted the urge to find relief from his own despair by joining in with tormenting those less successful at concealment. He became popular, up to a point, never reaching that pinnacle of popularity which, from the start, attends the lucky—if luck is what it is. And ‘luck’ made up no conspicuous part of Peter Hansome’s history. Once we are in the way of losing things, life seems to determine that other goods shall go: having lost his father Peter went on to lose his mother, to a Member of Parliament who chose Peter’s siblings, Marcus and Clare, as the foci of his step-parental care. There is a kind of person who, if aware that an affection is not directed towards them, will set out to destroy it. With the acuity of the sadistic, Evelyn Hansome’s second husband recognised the deep link between his wife and her second son. Such bonds between mothers and sons are not uncommon—nineteenth-century fiction depends upon them; but they should not, for that reason, be dismissed as unreal. Peter watched his mother falter in her expressions of love towards him and knew that she did so, not through any dereliction but through the desire to protect him. But understanding does not necessarily dispel reaction: as the mother became guarded, so did the son. When his stepfather died it was difficult for Peter to find a way back to any spontaneous expression of feeling. By the time he reached Cambridge Peter presented to the world the character of a conventional public schoolboy. He was rangy and, on the surface at least, good-humoured. Differences from others he expressed in minor, socially acceptable ways, by changing subjects from history to anthropology, for example. About this time he made friends with his father who, when Peter left university, celebrated the event by taking his son to a Soho strip joint. Peter responded to the prominent breasts and buttocks with an excited fascination he later defined to himself as loathing—though whether it was the naked gleaming girls or the profusely sweating figure of his father beside him which produced this reaction he could not have said. These uneasy emotions he ascribed to feelings of loyalty to his mother. It was the last year of conscription and he was about to leave for military service. He went to serve in Malaya, where he learned to command men and issue orders. And it was in Malaya that Peter Hansome first fell in love. 14 (#) Zahin explained that he attended a college near the King’s Road. ‘I am doing physics, also maths and chemistry.’ He sighed. ‘But why do them if that is not what you want?’ Bridget asked, and Zahin had explained that this is what his family wished for him. ‘I am to be a chemical engineer. In America there are big salaries for this work.’ Long ago Bridget had recognised that not having children put her at a disadvantage in understanding parental motive. Unimaginable to her the idea of setting another human being to do anything for which they had no inherent desire. Yet a rebellion against a parent was the basis of her own escape; maybe it was necessary that the young were made to comply with uncongenial demands—to ensure a kind of survival of the fittest…? Zahin, despite his expressed reservations, appeared to take his academic obligations seriously. Each morning, already showered and neatly dressed in his sober navy or grey pullover, he woke Bridget with a tray of tea. Only occasionally, on half-days and holidays, did he break out and dress in the colourful shirts, such as the blue silk he had been wearing the evening she returned from Farings. These he ironed with a professional skill. What he seemed to like best, however, was cleaning. It had not escaped Bridget’s notice that Zahin’s programme of cleaning included her bedroom. Not usually at a loss, she was unsure whether or not to take this up with the boy. On the face of it, it was an atrocious invasion—it was clear to her that he had not only tidied her dressing table, but that his domestic efforts had extended to more private areas. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/salley-vickers/instances-of-the-number-3/?lfrom=390579938) на ЛитРес. 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