Authors: Brian Freemantle
To Alb and Gwen, with affection
Widow'd Wife and married maid,
Betrothed, betrayer and betray'd,
Sir Walter Scottâ
Janet Stone let the word echo in her mind the way Hank had always said it when they'd made a mistake: deep down and echoing, like the sound of a bell, with all the emphasis at the end. And then let it chime again and reverberate again, waiting for the memory to hurt. There was a pang but not a bad one and she was grateful. It had taken too longâfar too longâfor her to get this far, being able positively to think about it without breaking down, without actually having to leave a room. So it was getting better: a necessary test.
She'd soon have to leave this room, though: she was ready for a lot of things, but not quite yet for Harriet Andrew's ritual assemblage of Washington glitterati, a melee of teeth-flashing gabble and spilled drinks and furtive hands. She should have known better, of course. She and Hank had nearly always found an excuse to avoid coming. Testing herself against the pain of memories, Janet forced another recollection. Hank hadn't called them melees. Menagerie had been his word. Janet thought the description was fitting; she was in a menagerie of performing human animals being watered and fed: doubtless, as she understood inhabitants of menageries did, they'd further perform by mating before the night was out. It was an impromptu intrusion and Janet thrust it irritably away. She could never allow herself reflections about sex: the subjectâthe very thoughtâwas more tightly locked out and forbidden from her mind than anything else. How could it be otherwise? What could there beâwho could there beâafter Hank?
Janet gazed around, seeking a doorway from the cage in which she felt incarcerated. It was not Harriet's house. It was a four-story brownstone on Dumbarton Street that Harriet's father had bought when he was seconded from the Bank of England in London to the World Bank in Washington and had afterwards retained as the undoubted investment it was. The main living room area stretched the entire length of the book-lined, low-lighted first level and there were ornately metaled and overhanging balconies at either end, reached through floor-to-ceiling windows. Both were open and Janet began to maneuver through the crush towards the one directly overlooking the street, but she halted almost at once. This wasn't the way to escape: this was scurrying into an even smaller cage where she would be isolated in a more restricted area among people interested only in their own audiences, which were audiences she had no wish to join, and their own voices, which were voices she had no wish to hear.
From her hostess's command post near the bar, a permanent mahogany bunker where a hired-in black-tied waiter plied gallon jugs of booze, Harriet caught Janet's eye. Harriet was wearing a designer skirt tight enough to have revealed her underwear if she had been wearing any, which she wasn't, and a low silk blouse which her nipples puckered to show she was not wearing a bra, either. The makeup had not started to melt yet and the naturally blonde hair was still in comparative order, bubbled like fairground candyfloss around a fine-nosed face that was too long to make the style successful. Harriet shone an enameled smile and made a circular motion with an extended finger, as if she were stirring something, and Janet nodded and stirred in the opposite direction in a sign-language promise to circulate. Maybe someone would have talked to her if she'd bothered with as much makeup as Harriet or left her knickers in the underwear drawer or made an effort to get her hair professionally fixed before coming tonight instead of relying upon that morning's shampoo in the shower. More things forbidden to reflect upon, she thought.
Janet, who knew Harriet to be the closest friend she had in Washingtonâperhaps in the worldâangrily stopped the drift of her thoughts. Harriet had simply tried to help by inviting her, like a lot of other people not as close had tried to help, in other ways, to get her out of the pit of despair in which she'd buried herself. Now she was struggling to emerge. And it was important to avoid self-pity. What had happened hadn't been anyone's fault: hadn't been avoidable or preventable. Dear God, how she wished so much had been avoidable or preventable! Self-pity again: careful, she warned herself.
She really did have to get away: find a quieter part of the cage at least. Claustrophobia was beginning to tighten around her, so that it was physically difficult to breathe, the first stirring of familiar panic she'd hoped to be over.
The gap was near the door, which was what she wanted anyway, a tiny oasis (were there oases in menageries?) kept vacant by the passing inrush of new arrivals. Cradling her barely sipped drink, a sweet punch Janet suspected might be too strongly laced with something like tasteless vodka from the gallon-bottle on the mahogany bar, she set out on her escape, turning and twisting and smiling her apologies through the crowd in between. Twice as she moved through she felt an apparently solicitous hand on her ass and once someone openly groped her left breast before she could get by.
Janet concentrated entirely upon reaching the space she'd identified and ignored the fondling, so it only took seconds to get through, but when she looked up the empty space wasn't empty any more. It wasn't possible so late to change direction; besides which, there wasn't anywhere else to go: The entrance now was jammed with a group of new arrivals, kissing greetings and discarding coats and dispensing presents and gesturing with booze contributions to prove their right of entry.
“Oh!” said Janet.
So was Janet, at her gauche reaction to his getting there ahead of her. “It was just that â¦ nothing â¦ I'm sorry,” she stumbled, still awkward.
He smiled, unflustered, and said: “We can't both be sorry. Not when neither of us know what we're apologizing for.”
“I didn't think you were apologizing,” she said. It had been so long! She felt lost.
“I wasn't,” he said. “But you seem disconcerted, so if I've done something wrong I will.”
Janet knew she was flushed, red-faced. “It was just that I thought this part of the room, so near the door, wasn't occupied.” She wished everything wasn't coming out so badly.
The smile stayed, a reassuring expression. “You too?” he said.
“I don't understand,” Janet said, thinking in relief that she did, but didn't want to make any more mistakes.
“I was looking for somewhere to hide,” he said. “Well, not hide exactly: to get out of the way.”
Janet smiled herself, feeling further relief. “Me, too,” she admitted.
“You didn't come with anyone either?”
“Or know anyone?”
“I know the girl whose party it is, Harriet Andrew,” conceded Janet. “She's a close friend.”
He looked beyond her, unhurriedly and appearing really to look, not just shift his attention casually. “Quite a bunch of people,” he said.
“Harriet gives these sorts of parties often: gets her name in the social columns even.”
He didn't seemed impressed. “You come to them all?”
“Oh no!” said Janet at once. “I haven't been to one for a long time.” The last occasion she had been with â¦ she started to remember and then stopped, blocking off the reminiscence.
“I don't think I fit particularly well here,” he said, coming back to her and smiling again.
“I don't think I do, either,” she said.
“You caught me.”
“I wasn't trying to steal your space.” He grinned. “I was making a break for it.”
Without being aware of it happening, Janet realized she had relaxed: the words were coming easily and the claustrophobic girdle wasn't tight around her any more. She said: “I guess I was doing the same thing.”
“That was before I found someone to talk to, of course.”
“Me, too,” she said again. Janet assured herself that this wasn't flirtation or anything like the sort of conversational foreplay going on everywhere else: it was simply niceârelaxing like she had already decidedâjust to talk and come back to some sort of social normalcy she had for so long denied herself.
With noise battling noise all around there was a moment of silence between them. He said: “So as we're talking I could stay.”
“I don't want to keep you,” she said, immediately retreating into the pit where she felt at home.
“OK,” he said at once, going backwards himself.
“I'll probably leave as well,” she said.
“Why don't we leave together?” He shrugged a no-big-deal shrug.
“Why not?” she said, answering the shrug as well as the question.
“My name's John,” he said. “John Sheridan.”
“Janet,” she responded. “Janet Stone.”