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“He didn’t say it to the lady. He said it to some irritating acquaintance.”

“Come here.”

The sun-baked landscape moved into late afternoon. Over at Quintern Place Bruce, having dug a further and deeper asparagus bed, caused the wee lad, whose name was Daft Artie, to fill it up with compost, fertilizer and soil while he himself set to work again with his long-handled shovel. Comprehensive drainage and nutrition were needed if his and his employer’s plans were to be realized.

Twenty miles away at Greengages in the Weald of Kent, Dr. Basil Schramm completed yet another examination of Sybil Foster. She had introduced into her room a sort of overflow of her own surplus femininity: be-ribboned pillows, cushions, a negligée and a bed-cover, both rose-coloured. Photographs, Slippers trimmed with marabou, a large box of petits-fours au massepain from the Marquise de Sevigné in Paris, which she had made but a feeble attempt to hide from the dietetic notice of her doctor. Above all, there was the pervasive scent of almond oil enclosed in a thin glass container that fitted over the light bulb of her table-lamp. Altogether the room, like Sybil herself, went much too far but, again like Sybil, contrived to get away with it.

“Splendid,” said Dr. Schramm, withdrawing his stethoscope. He turned away and gazed out of the window with professional tact while she rearranged herself.

“There!” she said presently.

He returned and gazed down at her with the bossy, possessive air that she found so satisfactory.

“I begin to be pleased with you,” he said.


“Truly. You’ve quite a long way to go, of course, but your general condition is improving. You’re responding.”

“I feel better.”

“Because you’re not allowed to take it out of yourself. You’re a highly strung instrument, you know, and mustn’t be at the beck and call of people who impose upon you.”

Sybil gave a deep sigh of concealed satisfaction.

“You do so understand,” she said.

“Of course I do. It’s what I’m here for. Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Sybil, luxuriating in it. “Yes, indeed.”

He slid her bracelet up her arm and then laid his fingers on her pulse. She felt sure it was going like a train. When, after a final pressure, he released her she said as airily as she could manage: “I’ve just written a card to an old friend of yours.”


“To ask her to lunch on Saturday. Verity Preston.”

“Oh yes?”

“It must have been fun for you, meeting again after so long.”

“Well, yes. It was,” said Dr. Schramm, “very long ago. We used to run up against each other sometimes in my student days.” He looked at his watch. “Time for your rest,” he said.

“You must come and talk to her on Saturday.”

“That would have been very pleasant.”

But it turned out that he was obliged to go up to London on Saturday to see a fellow medico who had arrived unexpectedly from New York.

Verity, too, was genuinely unable to come to Greengages, having been engaged for luncheon elsewhere. She rang Sybil up and said she hadn’t seen Prue but Mrs. Jim reported she was staying with friends in London.

“Does that mean Gideon Markos?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“I’ll bet it does. What about ghastly C.C.?”

“Not a sign of him as far as I know. I see by the shipping news that the Poseidon came into Southampton the day before yesterday.”

“Keep your fingers crossed. Perhaps we’ll escape after all.”

“I think not,” said Verity.

She was looking through her open window. An unmistakable figure shambled toward her up the avenue of limes.

“Your stepson,” she said, “has arrived.”


Claude Carter was one of those beings whose appearance accurately reflects their character. He looked, and in fact was, damp. He seemed unable to face anything or anybody. He was almost forty but maintained a rich crop of post-adolescent pimples. He had very little chin, furtive eyes behind heavy spectacles, a vestigial beard and mouse-coloured hair that hung damply, of course, halfway down his neck.

Because he was physically so hopeless, Verity entertained a kind of horrified pity for him. This arose from a feeling that he couldn’t be as awful as he looked and that anyway he had been treated unfairly: by his Maker in the first instance and probably in the second, by his masters (he had been sacked from three schools), his peers (he had been bullied at all of them) and life in general. His mother had died in childbirth and he was still a baby when Sybil married his father, who was killed in the blitz six months later and of whom Verity knew little beyond the fact that he collected stamps. Claude was brought up by his grandparents, who didn’t care for him. These circumstances, when she thought of them, induced in Verity a muddled sense of guilt for which she could advance no justification and which was certainly not shared by Claude’s stepmother.

When he became aware of Verity at her window he pretended, ineffectually, that he hadn’t seen her and approached the front door with his head down. She went out to him. He did not speak but seemed to offer himself feebly for her inspection.

“Claude,” said Verity.

“That’s right.”

She asked him in and he sat in her sunny drawing-room as if, she thought, he had been left till called for. He wore a T-shirt that had been made out of a self-raising-flour bag and bore the picture of a lady who thrust out a vast bosom garnished with the legend “Sure To Rise.” His jeans so far exceeded in fashionable shrinkage as to cause him obvious discomfort.

He said he’d been up to Quintern Place where he’d found Mrs. Jim Jobbin, who told him Mrs. Foster was away and she couldn’t say when she would return.

“Not much of a welcome,” he said. “She made out she didn’t know Prue’s address, either. I asked who forwarded their letters.” He blew three times down his nose which was his manner of laughing and gave Verity a knowing glance. “That made Mrs. Jim look pretty silly,” he said.

“Sybil’s taking a cure,” Verity explained. “She’s not seeing anybody.”

“What, again! What is it this time?”

“She was run down and needs a complete rest.”

“I thought you’d tell me where she was. That’s why I came.”

“I’m afraid not, Claude.”

“That’s awkward,” he said fretfully. “I was counting on it.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Oh, up there for the time being. At Quintern.”

“Did you come by train?”

“I hitched.”

Verity felt obliged to ask him if he’d had any lunch and he said: not really. He followed her into the kitchen where she gave him cold meat, chutney, bread, butter, cheese and beer. He ate a great deal and had a cigarette with his coffee. She asked him about Australia and he said it was no good, really, not unless you had capital. It was all right if you had capital.

He trailed back after her to the drawing-room and she began to feel desperate.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I was depending on Syb. I happen to be in a bit of a patch. Nothing to worry about, really, but, you know.”

“What sort of patch?” she asked against her will.

“I’m short.”

“Of money?”

“What else is there to be short of?” he asked and gave his three inverted sniffs.

“How about the hundred pounds she sent to Teneriffe?”

He didn’t hesitate or look any more hang-dog than he was already.

“Did she send it!” he said. “Typical of the bloody Classic Line, that is. Typical inefficiency.”

“Didn’t it reach you?”

“Would I be cleaned out if it had?”

“Are you sure you haven’t spent it?”

“I resent that, Miss Preston,” he said, feebly bridling.

“I’m sorry if it was unfair. I can let you have twenty pounds. That should tide you over. And I’ll let Sybil know about you.”



2011 - 2018