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Authors: Kristel Thornell

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BOOK: On the Blue Train
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On the point of departure, she noticed the sheets of stationery left out on the writing table and remembered the letter that was still unwritten. She searched for an acceptable phrase, standing at the window.

Darling
. . .

Abandoning the effort, she consigned the empty pages to the glowing end of the fire and assured their combustion with the poker. There'd be time to write when she'd settled, wouldn't there? The pain in her shoulder she'd been forewarned of the night before was now radiating irrefutably, nagging. Neuritis?

The sober, comely stone terrace houses were mesmerising, and Teresa fancied that the air, nippy but so fresh-tasting, purified her lungs. Gentle sunshine in a cerulean sky. Benign clouds that might have drifted from an illustration in a children's storybook. Harrogate was a salubrious, superior place, time itself seeming to progress smoothly there, coasting. She was judging herself not far from Bettys Tea Rooms when she passed an uncompromising-looking church, its doors the deep red of new blood.

A gargoyle sprang out at her like a jack-in-the-box. A haughty boyish figure fixing her with an ignoble, insolent stare. Leering.

Or so it seemed. She was stock-still, her idiotic heart hovering in fright. The sun had lost itself in cloud, the holy
edifice engulfed in a stagnant cold. Red doors pulsing with the cadence of a migraine. It would be all right, Teresa was all right.

There was a beech tree nearby, and after a moment she went and braced herself against it. This jolt, this reaction to what was naturally nothing but carved stone, completely harmless, was preposterous. The only explanation she could furnish was that gargoyles had always unsettled her. Their stunted fiendish bodies appeared set on bursting into freedom and swooping voraciously down on the nervous like crazed birds of prey. She was grateful for the tree, which reminded her of the beech in the garden at Ashfield.

The clouds opened, a young woman passed with a skipping step, swinging a sparkling silver lamé handbag—vestige or foreshadowing of a festive evening—and everything slipped back into the sponginess of unrestricted time in a place where she was unknown.

She said aloud, experimentally, ‘Swanning around, fancy-free.'

Just ahead of her, a lordly man in exquisite riding apparel turned at the sound of her words, his eyebrows raised.

Bettys was pervaded by an exceedingly English decorum. The lunch hour over, it was quiet. Almost steady again, Teresa requested a table for one. Her waiter, an enormously thin fellow, was as unobtrusively attentive as she could wish.
The pianist, less adroit or inclined to dissemble, played a deflated charleston.

Sipping superb tea, river-brown in sheer white china, she lunched on calming pumpkin soup and a most respectable roast beef sandwich. A book would have been secured between the weighty silver knife and the edge of the plate, and she sorely regretted not having one. Also, the servings were on the modest side and embarking on a course she foresaw its end, asking herself what would follow. She wrangled a little with her instincts, but ultimately undertook a scone studded with candied fruits. If she always needed treats, then this wasn't the time to deny herself. And hadn't she lost a considerable amount of weight? The coffee she ordered in conclusion set her heart scuttering.

The Royal Baths were lavish. The palatial premises boasted a cupola, turrets, winged lions for guards. She passed in, drawing her shoulders back.

A woman in a hypnotic white uniform, thick features, babyish blonde curls, expounded on the correct proceedings, Teresa only retaining that she should avoid the cold plunge bath if she'd just eaten. There was the hint of a scolding here, of the gruff head nurse keeping in check a wayward patient. Teresa swore gravely to steer clear of the plunge bath. She had zero desire to expose herself to another shock.

The close wooden walls of the chamber she was assigned along the ladies' dressing hall recalled a confessional. Inside it, she might have been years distant from the streets beyond. Where was she, exactly? She was apprehensive, then, as if something were awaiting her, looming. Was it only the residue of that featherbrained nonsense with the gargoyle? The strong coffee?

Wound in just a towel, she forced herself to sally forth into what might have been a luxurious little corner of the Orient. A civilised cavern, Moorish vaults and a mosaic of tiles underfoot. It was a hothouse in which female bodies were like voluptuous waxen jungle flowers somehow uprooted and moistly thriving. There was a naturalness to being hardly clothed like that, and she hadn't experienced it in . . . so long.

She ventured into a Hot Room—the Caldarium, or was it the Laconium? The settling of heavy red velvet drapes behind her gave the illusion of coming onto a stage. But there was a lone matron in a state of undress dozing there on a deckchair, so it resembled more the wings of a theatre, the matron an unlikely actress, ageing and relegated to shrill comic turns, stealing a nap between speeches.

Growing stupid under the single-minded influence of heat, Teresa wandered between warm and warmer rooms. Post-lunch somnolence was stalking her. She had grown accustomed to being in great need of sleep while unable to achieve it, and having to fend it off was a sly twist.
There persisted, too, that hunch that something was waiting for her, impending. However, in the scented mists of the Russian Vapour Room, she had to sit and could not fight any longer.

Oblivion like a hand pulling her through her own resistance.

The drawing room at Ashfield, a party afoot. Agatha in a decorative white muslin dress. Her pale hair is long enough to sit on, as it has not been in years, floating, lustrous. She is somewhere between child and woman, and perfectly happy.

Overhearing a guest she does not recognise exclaim that she is miraculously lovely, it dawns on her that the cause of this—she does feel unusually radiant—is the beverage she has been absently sipping. Mummy (who is not comfortable at social gatherings and will be dying for these festivities to end) had pushed it into her hand some time before. The glass has a kind of aureole. She understands that what she has taken for her favourite drink, half milk, half cream, is in fact a rare elixir whose brilliance has been seeping into her and illuminating her from within. She mustn't spill any.

Auntie-Grannie is there, as steadfastly cynical as ever (
You haven't left your handbag anywhere the servants can get at it, have you?
), and yet so sound, an unsinkable ship. And dear agreeable Father sits universally adored and unsuspecting on a Chippendale chair.

A man is leaning over him whispering something. A friend of the family, presumably, but she can't place him.

All at once tired and thirsting for aloneness, she slips out into the garden. Wind is coming off the sea, the air salty and sweet, perfume that always seems the clue to an ancient secret. She realises she's been missing it horribly as soon as she is offered it again.

She finds herself at the bottom of the garden's slope. Sensing she is not truly alone, she turns.

It is the man who was whispering to Father.

He faces her, but his features are masked with shadow. She is now less certain that she is indeed looking at a man. Such a thorough obscurity clings to the individual's whole figure that it could be a woman disguised in men's clothing.

What she can discern is the gun being pointed in her direction. Not with any evident malice. The gesture is almost offhanded, even vaguely genial. And this is the worst of it: that this person should have passed himself off as a friend, working his way surreptitiously into their cheerful family circle, into their confidence, only to turn and so blithely reveal his cunning.

The shadows about him shift as he proceeds towards her. It
is
a man's face, pleasant, quite handsome, and unthreatening—except for the eyes.

The menace is in the eyes. Here you see he is a bad lot, downright evil. Despite the half-light, she has the conviction
they are a preternatural blue. Terribly clear. A colour that should mean innocence and is its opposite. Horror. An appalling Trojan horse of a gaze turned upon her in her childhood refuge . . .

‘Mrs Neele!'

Through rolls of swirling vapour a figure advanced on her. She recognised the infantile golden curls and attitude of determined disapproval. Grouchy Nurse. It was clear she'd failed the lesson.

‘I haven't set foot in the plunge bath,' Teresa protested.

Her recurring childhood nightmare, featuring the slippery impostor she had christened the Gun Man, had returned of late in the measly helpings of shut-eye she had been served, and it was around her still like a dark scent. Why had it always had such power over her?

‘Your colour is very high, ma'am.' Nurse clicked her tongue, apparently discombobulated. ‘We'll get you into a cool shower.'

Dizzy, Teresa leaned heavily on her strapping guide as she was assisted to the showers. It was nice to be handled with stern solicitude and positioned on a marble bench beneath falling water. If only the refreshing flow would never end, would purge her of the Gun Man for good, make her truly new and serene. She saw the River Dart again, then the tide
coming in to Beacon Cove. ‘There's nothing like water,' she said, ‘to give you a fresh outlook. Growing up by water teaches you that, I suppose.'

‘Pardon, ma'am?'

Teresa straightened up, head a little unwieldy but better. ‘Water's wonderful.'

Nurse studied her. ‘We're improving. Can I ask, ma'am, what complaints you have?'

The music of that northern speech was pleasurable. ‘Complaints? Oh, some lumbago, and neuritis in my shoulder, I think, pretty sharp.'

‘The massage douche would be of help there, I'll warrant. And bathing in the thermal water.' She unfolded a towel, looking to one side. ‘Which is good for nervous tension, too.'

BOOK: On the Blue Train
3.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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