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Authors: Anthea Fraser

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BOOK: Island-in-Waiting
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Neil and Nicholas turned from the fireplace to greet us. To my highly attuned senses there seemed a slight reservation in Neil's greeting, due, no doubt, to Ray's proprietorial air yesterday. It was strange how each of them seemed to cancel out the other, so that when I was with one I felt drawn to him alone. The bond with Neil I now knew tied in with my dreams, but I could not gauge how deeply, nor if he was also responsible for the voice. Though I must obviously find out, this was not the time to try and I turned my attention to our host.

In his own home, Nicholas seemed slightly more relaxed than when I had last seen him, a quietly courteous man anxious only for the welfare of his guests. Perhaps the enigmatic Ray had been responsible for his previous agitation, playing one of the cat-and-mouse games which Hugo had warned me about.

Vivian came bustling back. “Now, what's everybody drinking?” I watched her as she moved about the room, straightening a cushion, fractionally altering the position of an ornament. At first glance she had struck me simply as attractive and smartly dressed, but I was now conscious of a nervous energy about her which made relaxing difficult in her company. In this clearer light, I saw too that the pale, finely chiselled face was criss-crossed by a network of fine lines, though at a guess she was no more than forty. She spoke quickly in staccato sentences, giving the impression that she wasn't prepared to wait for a considered reply.

“And what do you think of Elian Vannin, Chloe?” she asked, handing me a glass and perching like a bird of passage on the tapestry chair beside me.

“The Isle of Man!” Hugo translated, with a smile for my blankness.

“I haven't seen much of it yet but it seems fascinating.”

“To visit, perhaps,” she said crisply. “Believe me, it palls surprisingly quickly.”

“It depends what you want from it,” Neil put in. “There's a gentler pace of living, certainly, but I find the local philosophy ‘There's another boat tomorrow' rather soothing.”

“Well, I'm afraid I don't. I feel buried alive out here. Oh for department stores, art galleries, concerts, a choice of theatre!” She snapped open her cigarette case, offered it round and selected one for herself with fingers that shook slightly, bending her head to the flame which Neil held out for her.

“Lest Chloe should think she has inadvertently landed on a desert island,” Nicholas observed dryly, “let me assure her that there are theatres, concert halls and art galleries here. There's even a casino, for heaven's sake, if that's your idea of entertainment. And of course the outdoor facilities can't be bettered: fishing, golf, riding, sailing –”

“You're beginning to sound like a holiday brochure, darling,” Vivian remarked tartly. “Anyway, it's in your blood, we know that. All I'm saying is that it's not my idea of the bright lights, but I'm well aware that I'm stuck with it. We all are,” she added, her eyes flickering over our rather embarrassed faces, “except Chloe, lucky child, who can fly out on the next plane without a backward glance whenever the mood takes her.” She stood up and smoothed down her skirt. “If you'll excuse me I'll go and put the finishing touches to the meal.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Martha asked.

“You could carry through the first course for me, if you'd be an angel. No, Chloe, you stay here and entertain the gentlemen. Dinner won't be long.”

“How's the Volvo going, Nicholas?” Hugo enquired as the door closed behind them. He turned to me. “Did I tell you old Nicholas here has the identical model car I have, colour and all? I did a double take the other day in the staff car-park.”

“No problems so far,” Nicholas replied. “The only criticism I would make

As the conversation became technical Neil sat down on the sofa beside me. “Don't be put off by Vivian's assessment of the island. It's really a very pleasant little place.”

“I feel rather sorry for her,” I said slowly. “She seems frustrated somehow.”

“Yes, I'm afraid that's the root of it. The tragedy is that it's mainly on Nicholas's behalf, and if she'd only relax he'd be quite happy here.” He tilted the glass in his hand, his eyes on the swirling liquid. “How long have you known Ray Kittering?”

The unexpected question took me by surprise. “Ray? Three days, I suppose. Why?”

He looked up. “But I understood – I gathered in the staffroom that you knew each other?”

“Only because he'd called at the cottage on Sunday afternoon.”

“That's all it was? I wondered if perhaps he was part of the reason for your visit.”

My emphatic disclaimer was interrupted by Vivian's announcement that dinner was ready, but as we went through to the dining-room I was uncomfortably aware that I might have been less than honest with Neil. If the compulsive voice in my head was Ray's, he could indeed have influenced my coming, though not in the way Neil had meant.

The meal was excellent but although conversation flowed freely on the surface, I was conscious of the tensions just below. Nicholas's fingers were continually crumbling the bread on his side plate and Vivian laughed too often and on too high a note. Several times I caught Neil's eye across the table and I found my own thoughts wandering, trying to probe back into those dreams in which he had figured and wondering if I should really have the opportunity of reliving them.

“You know, of course, that Nicholas has applied for the Downhurst vacancy?” Vivian remarked to Hugo over the dessert. “I'm sure he must be better qualified than any of the other applicants. Look at the experience he's had: twenty years now in a succession of famous schools. It's really heart-breaking to see someone of his ability stultifying out here. If he hadn't come to St Olaf's he'd have had his own school years ago.”

“My dear, that is your own rather biased opinion,” Nicholas put in with heightened colour.

“Not only mine, I assure you. It was nothing short of scandalous the way you were passed over in favour of Frank Harrison. After all, it was more or less understood –”

She broke off under the force of pleading in his eyes. “I'm sorry. Please forgive that outburst. I'm afraid we've both been under rather a strain since the interview. Nicholas is right, of course. You don't want to hear all our problems.”

“By the way, Nicholas,” Neil said smoothly, “I've been meaning to ask if they've roped you in for the end-of-term play this year?” I caught the grateful glance Vivian flashed him as he turned to me. “Has Hugo told you what a fantastic mimic Nicholas is? And not just of the ‘You dirty rat' school! No college entertainment is complete without his impersonation of the prime minister!”

With the conversation steered on to safer topics the evening eventually tottered to a close without any more verbal pitfalls.

“What did you think of them?” Hugo asked as we drove home through the winding dark lanes.

“It wasn't a very comfortable evening, was it? You had to be careful what you said.”

“Too true. Thank heaven at least for Neil.” He put his hand briefly on Martha's knee. “Never get as neurotic as that about me, will you, sweetheart?”

“Not as long as you're head of Eton before you're forty! Will we have to ask them back? I don't think I could stand the strain!”

“If we do we'll certainly put a spot of bromide in the gravy!” Hugo promised with a laugh as we turned once more into the driveway of the cottage.

Five

Yet when I put out my light that night, it was not the undertones and nuances of the evening which occupied my mind but Martha's earlier suggestion that my dreams may now start to play themselves back in waking life. For a long time I tossed and turned wondering about the possible elasticity of time, and it was probably this obsessive treadmill which, when at last I fell asleep, laid me open to the merciless attack of the most terrifying dream I had yet had.

I found myself alone on a hillside in the mist and as always, though I couldn't see it, was aware of the nearness of the sea. Out in the greyness a foghorn sounded mournfully. Where was he? Dear God, what had happened? I started to run, but the long skirt wrapped itself round my legs and I stumbled to a halt. Why had he left me alone? I wanted to call his name, but there was now an ominous listening quality about the stillness, an eerie sensation of not being quite alone after all. In this white blindness someone could be within a few feet of me, waiting for a sound to betray my whereabouts. My eyes strained desperately to penetrate the mist and, as I stared, the drifting whiteness over to my right swirled unaccountably in some eddy of air, thinning to disclose the blurred outline of a man. Slowly he turned his head in my direction and a scream welled up in my throat ...

Drenched in sweat I lay rigid in Hugo's little guest-room. No use, now, telling myself it was only a dream. It was a ‘special' dream, after all, and it seemed these might have a way of coming true. What was more I knew instinctively that despite the long skirt this dream did not lie comfortably in a recurring past but ahead of me, in a future which drew nearer with every tick of my bedside clock. Had I been dreaming of events leading up to my own death? Perhaps that was the reason for bringing me to the island.

It was a long time before I was able to unflex my hands, to force my stiff body to relax, and eventually, as dawn was breaking, to sleep.

I woke a second time that Wednesday morning to the sound of Hugo's car leaving for college, and spent the next few hours trying to persuade Martha to ignore my pallor and the dark circles under my eyes.

“I had a bad night, that's all,” I kept assuring her, and though she probably guessed that bad nights were synonymous with dreams, she didn't press me any further.

“I wish I didn't have a class this afternoon,” she said worriedly over lunch. “I don't like leaving you, but I suppose you don't want to come with me?”

“Not today Martha, but I'm all right, really.”

And to prove the fact to myself I decided to devote my attention to preparing an elaborate meal for dinner, which would leave me no room for morbid imaginings. We had brought a chicken home from Ramsey the previous day and a quick reconnaissance of the store cupboard showed me that, surprisingly, all the basic ingredients of
Ballotine de Poularde
were to hand. Feeling better already, I tied an apron round my waist and embarked on the delicate task of boning the chicken without cutting through the skin.

I'm not sure at what stage I realized Ray was coming. At first I tried to dismiss my quickened breathing and the unaccountable heat of my body, but when the tap came on the kitchen window and I looked up to see him standing there, it was certainly no surprise. Wiping my hands on the apron I went to let him in.

“Good day to you, Miss Winter.”

“Hello, Ray.” I stood passive, accepting because I had no choice the powerful waves which pulsated over me. After a moment I said with an effort, “Would you like to come in?”

He smiled slightly. “Indeed I would. There's not much to be gained from standing on your doorstep! It's a cup of tea I'm after,” he added, following me inside. “I've a free period and it occurred to me you'd brew a better pot than Phyllis Lathom. It wouldn't surprise me if she concocted hers in the chemistry lab!”

His manner was natural and friendly and could not account for the panic that was beginning to build up inside me. Soon, because I could not help myself, I would have to go to him.

“I'll put the kettle on,” I said carefully, rinsing my hands at the sink. I could feel his eyes on me and the hair on my scalp moved in an age-old reaction to fear. He had stopped talking and in my agitation I could think of no way to break the mounting silence. I took out the cups and saucers which clattered together in my shaking hands and poured the boiling water into the teapot and all the time, as I moved about the room, his eyes followed me. When at last he did speak I actually jumped.

“I phoned you last night. There was no reply.”

“We went to the Quayles for dinner.”

“Then you've my sympathy. If ever a couple were guaranteed to put the dampers on an evening, it's themselves. And was Neil Sheppard there as usual?”

“He was.”

“As I thought. Old Vivian has quite a hankering for him. Might well be mutual, for all she's older than he is. There's more to her than that mewling Pam Beecham, and from her angle wouldn't any man be an improvement on her scared rabbit of a husband, and him preferring little boys anyway.”

I gasped. “Ray, you can't go round saying things like that! If anyone heard you –”

“What would they do, now? Nothing, I'm telling you. They daren't. There's not one of them hasn't some nasty little secret he'd rather keep hidden.” He glanced at my closed face. “But I didn't come here to talk about the Quayles, nor, to be truthful, for a cup of tea. You know why I came, don't you, Chloe?”

I shook my head speechlessly.

“You know I can't keep away from you, any more than you can from me.”

A pulse was beating in my throat and my hands were ice cold. This was the moment I'd longed for on Sunday afternoon, when Hugo had hurriedly ushered Ray from the house. Now inexplicably I was dreading it and I knew that this time there would be no postponement. Ray had risen to his feet and was standing across the table, waiting. He made no move towards me but to my helpless terror I found I was moving slowly and inexorably towards him. I had almost reached him by the time that I was able to force myself to stop, having to push back against an almost physical force which was propelling me forward. His eyes burned into mine and his face was glistening with sweat. He gave a breathless little laugh and reached for me avidly, his open mouth closing over mine. I stiffened, holding myself as far from him as I could, appalled that by walking round the table to meet him I had virtually invited the embrace.

BOOK: Island-in-Waiting
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