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Authors: Kristel Thornell

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BOOK: On the Blue Train
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‘True.'

Their tea arrived, and she poured.

‘I failed my wife.'

She waited, but he added nothing.

‘What if I were to tell you that I failed my husband, too?'

Tautness between them, the flexed muscle of secrecy, each tipped towards the other, yet pulling back.

‘Would you talk to me a little about that? I promise I will try to explain myself, but I'll need some more time. It's harder than I thought.' He saw her considering doubtfully, registering what he was asking—disclosure that he had not
yet provided himself. He went further. He pushed her: ‘You've run away because he betrayed you?' While she covered her mouth with a serviette, he carried on, ‘A sensible course of action, I'm sure.'

A spasmodic twitch of a smile. And then, her face going very neutral, she murmured, ‘I know it looks bad and complicated from the newspapers. But that's all twisted. I didn't anticipate . . . In fact, it's quite simple.' Her hand fluttered in front of her face, and returned to the table. ‘Yes, he betrayed me and I had to show him what he's done.'

Harry nodded. Her hand rose again fussily, as if to check her lips for crumbs. He sipped tea and scalded his tongue. She was now cutting a slice of strawberry sponge cake into segments.

‘He doesn't realise. He can be such a boy.'

‘I see.' He felt a sick sort of exhilaration. He glanced around the café. No one appeared to be paying them any special attention. Why should they? There was no reason to think that a missing novelist, maybe the most notorious woman in the country at that moment, was in their midst. All that would be observed, looking at Harry and Teresa, would be—what? The two of them would not look easy enough together for a married couple, or as hardened in uneasiness. Would their laboured exchange seem that of new lovers? He found in himself a perverse desire to draw attention, for what
was occurring between him and Teresa to
exist
in the eyes of the world, because that might have made it less uncertain.

‘He's asked for a divorce. He thinks it's that easy—snap your fingers and it's done. Fifteen years of life razed.'

‘Ah.' He was inspirited by the word
divorce
, but disturbed by the tight cadence of her speech. It was vital he take the right tone. He'd have given a lot to be allowed to hold and quieten her hand, to fondle her wrist.

Having just bitten into a wedge of cake, she said through a screen of fingers, ‘I threw a teapot at him.' She appeared to swallow with difficulty. ‘The torte is excellent.'

‘Did it hit him?'

She looked startled. Then they began to snicker, a naughty, lovely bridge of sound, feral notes in it that didn't belong to gaiety.

‘No.'

Laughter abandoned them, and he asked, as insipidly as he could, ‘Who's the other woman?'

‘A friend of friends. A golfer.' She smiled caustically.

‘Oh, for heaven's sake. And very young, I presume?'

‘
Mais bien sûr
.'

‘Won't you be so much better off without him?'

The extent of this miscalculation was immediately obvious. Her face fell from humour into the innocence of shock, a white wall. She forgot her cake.

So she hadn't run to escape him—but to bring him back. The cake plates had a look of ruin to them.

‘You still love him?' Harry asked after a moment.

As if this made everything painfully evident: ‘He's my husband.'

Her plummy accent that he'd somehow forgotten had come into relief with this declaration, obscurely impenetrable. He struggled not to be combative. ‘You say you've failed him. But isn't it he who's failed you?' His smile felt sorrowful even as he tried to make it innocuous.

She shook her head wilfully. They had both lost their appetite. The cosy café had turned claustrophobic. Why had she kissed him? What had that signified? He remembered what Dickens had said about the freakishness of Harrogate and the lives lived there.

‘Could we walk?'

She assented, and he saw to the bill while she stared out of the windows. He feared that the confidences were over.

They didn't speak again until they'd been strolling for some minutes by the stream in Valley Gardens. They were vaguely following the noble, leisurely progress of a swan. What an improbably graceful creature a swan is, he thought. You wouldn't reckon it would survive much longer than a flower. The sun had presented itself, brilliant and quite searing, as winter sun could abruptly be on occasion. He was almost
able to forget the quirky situation and pretend they were sweethearts, for a minute or two.

‘I left him alone too much. You see, my mother died and I couldn't think. I was at rather a low point. I was trying to get everything organised at Ashfield, all her things. My God, the endless furniture, the musty rooms, the pictures, photographs, letters, piles of papers done up in ribbons . . . drawers and boxes . . . You don't realise, all the drawers and boxes that go into a life. The weight of it. But I should have been at Sunningdale.' She gave him a somehow ferocious glance.

‘Shouldn't
he
have been with
you
? Standing by you through all that?'

‘No, you don't understand. He's never been good with suffering. Any kind of suffering, sickness, sadness. I knew that perfectly well. But I couldn't
remember
, I couldn't see for grief. I was blind with it, mucky, tacky—I positively
stank
of grief. That's how I failed him.' Her words were surprisingly acidic, self-hating.

He couldn't stop himself. He took her elbow and held it tightly. ‘I do understand.'

A fleeting sense of her leaning into him, but just then the saxophonist from the Hydro Boys passed them, close enough for Harry to find the pinkish-white hue of his skin quite boyish in daylight. The saxophonist saw and recognised them, and made only an ironical little gesture at his hat, his
usual stagy chumminess evaporated. He suspected her? Harry released Teresa at once.

‘The saxophonist,' he breathed.

‘Seemed a bit queer,' she said in an undertone.

‘Yes, I don't like it.' They were gazing around them now and, picking up their pace, they moved towards Bogs Field. ‘We probably shouldn't be seen together too much. You know, in case. In case they discover . . .'

‘You don't think they will, do you? The papers have to quieten down. Anyway, he'll come for me soon.' The Colonel. ‘Look.'

She'd taken a copy of
The Times
from her bag and was offering him a page from it. It took Harry a moment.
Friends of Teresa Neele, please direct themselves . . .
She was hoping to convey a backstairs message with this? For the first time, it truly occurred to him to wonder about the balance of her mind.

‘How will he know this is you?' he challenged.

‘It's
her
name—Neele. The golfer's.'

‘Ah.' So she'd taken her rival's name as pseudonym. An odd transposition—with revenge as its motive? Or was there only a sad, private kind of violence in it? He sneaked a look at her face. She was studying the peaty, spongy ground. The small, triangular field they were standing in was dotted with scores of mineral springs marked with iron and stone lids. ‘You really think he'll decipher this?'

‘He has to. All wells, are they?'

In a flash he decided that if she was mad, it was simply the ordinary madness of heartbreak. He despised the man who had inflicted it on her. ‘I take it. What a naturally
opulent
area this is. Liquid wealth in its earth. Seems rather arbitrary, the way such riches are distributed, even unfair.'

‘Maybe. But you have to know to look for them, and be very organised and professional in how you use them.'

The Quality's style of thinking, he mused. Or the Successful Person's.

She went on, almost babbling, ‘Wouldn't it be nice to live underground? Be like a badger, the king of your own labyrinth? The dark would be customary. It'd never matter how you looked. You could get as fat as you liked. There'd be no newspapers. You'd miss the crosswords, but you might be a simpleton anyway. Things like the opinions of others wouldn't worry you.'

Her voice had turned plaintive, and he'd have gladly taken her far away from the aboveground world of newspapers and human judgement, if he could have. ‘Will you satisfy Mrs Jackman and let me accompany you to Birk Crag tomorrow, for some fresh air? It really might be good for you to avoid the hotel a little, you know.'

She hesitated.

‘Until he comes for you,' Harry added, biting the inside of his cheek until the pain brought a queer answering convulsion in his groin.

‘It couldn't hurt, could it?' she seemed to ask herself.

Perhaps she was already sorry for the titbits of information she had tossed to him that day, a few relics from her former life. He was wolfish for these, while wanting her to remain safely hidden from others. He wished he knew more and could be confident that she wouldn't try to hide in the conclusive way.

She met his eyes. ‘What you had intended to tell me . . . you'll get to that? Because today I find that I have been the one unburdening herself.'

‘Yes, I promise. It might take me a while to work up to it, but I will.'

She continued to observe him. ‘It's good to have a friend.'

Again, this sounded like a question. He weighed the word
friend
and found it light. Could she truly still love the Colonel? She was definitely right to doubt that Harry could be a friend to her. He wasn't sure of it himself. He agreed with her misgivings: the threat embedded in any bond between them was clear. Yet he was intensely drawn to her. ‘Meet here at lunchtime? One thirty, say? I could bring a picnic.'

‘
I
will bring the picnic,' she said, showing that she was not conceding to him and remained on her guard.

‘Capital. You should go on ahead now. We shouldn't arrive at the Hydro together.'

He watched her leave the gardens. As she did her head tilted back and he interpreted this as an admiring appraisal of the Grand Hotel, surely the town's most sumptuous lodgings. She would fantasise, he imagined, about staying there, seeing herself fulfilled in that deluxe turreted vision, glamorously sated, in the same way he fantasised about the sombre quietude he'd enjoy as an inmate of the Bath Hospital—also, admittedly, a magnificent structure—further along the road. How laughably different they were, despite his inherited money and passably English accent.

He lingered awhile on the marshy ground, taking what he could from the winter sun while it lasted, knowing now with certainty what he'd as good as known since he'd met Teresa: his feelings for her were doomed. Perhaps it was the transient heat that brought back a memory of the immense summer sky above his parents' farm. More than usual, he felt deracinated, an exile.

He dined late, at ten, to avoid Teresa and the Jackmans. After, he took himself to the smoking room. The Russian was there alone, the air possessed by cigar smoke like a pungent, virtually material spirit. Harry considered about-facing and politeness be damned, but the Russian's meditative expression
stopped him. Incongruous—however, who was Harry to tell what in that face was in tune? He was hardly even acquainted with the man.

The Russian nodded as if welcoming the intrusion and said, not at all unctuously, but rather forlornly, ‘I'm leaving in a few days.'

Harry guessed that he'd hoped for an adventure he'd not found. He sat in the armchair opposite the Russian's—a hefty, well-sprung thing—and set about preparing a pipe of cherry tobacco. Valeria had claimed to like the smell of it on his clothes. She had inhaled these sometimes after he'd undressed and hung them up, reminding him of his family's blond mutt, Roger, who given half a chance would bury his head in dropped items of their underwear. There had seemed in the dog's obsession to be a profound attachment to the family combined with an instinctive animal enjoyment, an incentive somewhere between sentiment and sex. It had caused uncomfortable giggles in the household, where neither sentiment nor sex, nor even laughter, were really acknowledged. Valeria's habit had touched and aroused him.

‘Back to Russia?'

‘Oh no.' He smiled. ‘Back to Knightsbridge.'

Harry wondered if he'd fled the revolution, and if life seemed pale to him here at this distance from his more vibrant homeland. Or did he feel calmer, more at ease? It was companionable to be sitting smoking together. In this setting
the Russian's poise—or charisma, or whatever it was—wasn't threatening. He seemed to embody that French concept of being well in one's skin, contentedly, fully occupying one's body. Harry realised he'd not been so relaxed in another person's presence in some time. They were, after all, he discovered himself thinking, fellow émigrés, as well as sharing an appreciation of Teresa's magnetism. That brio behind frosted glass.

BOOK: On the Blue Train
8.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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