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A girl in an apron had appeared, looking as if she was about to stamp her foot and shoo them all out of the room. Dinner was ready.

But Andrew’s phone had begun to issue a convoluted little jingle and he was suddenly sitting up frozen in his chair. “Amsterdam to Lisbon,” he reported. “Delayed by nineteen minutes on take-off!”

Ted was dismayed. The whole evening would be ruined if his father was fussing over one of his planes. “Oh, these buggers,” he hastened to assure Andrew. “These buggers at Lisbon airport…”

“Amsterdam airport!” Andrew corrected him so rapidly that it was as if he had flung a knife into the floor.

“Well exactly. These buggers! You are coming to dinner?”

Andrew was busy scrutinising his phone. The girl in the apron appeared again, possibly a different girl, to see why they were still not yet on the move. She wore an expression of patience and even-mindedness, though there was something about her sudden visibility which, to Ted, looked bossy. Oh, but now Ted had realised what was amiss – some guests were here! He shot to his feet, immediately in a dither. The Blackwoods, the most civilised of their neighbours!

They were all crowding in at the drawing room door, their faces startled and sheepish. There was Victoria Blackwood and her grandfather Patrick. Plodding along in the rear was a lean, rather hangdog man, who looked too old to be Victoria’s boyfriend, but somewhat too familiar to be an ordinary friend. So he was probably a boyfriend. Moments later, Ted would put a name to this face: Zbigniew Tycienski, a Polish journalist who wrote for a dubious Edinburgh website which always seemed to be plastered with abuse and resentment. Next Ted was alarmed: the family would have to remember to cut out their whispered sarcasms about the mostly-Polish service staff while Tycienski was at the table.

“Come in, come in!” Ted was luring them into the dining room and he smiled with surprised relief at the laid table which was waiting for them, as if this was a lucky accident. There was a thick smell of just-lit candles and the table was decorated with coracles which were heaped with bulbs of garlic and dust-coloured seed pods and shrivelled purple tubers and the roots of mandrakes. “You smell ravishing Tori,” Ted purred, wrinkling his nose theatrically.

“Thank you, Ted.” Tori lost all of her plainness, her lumpy face and aged solemn mouth, when she smiled. Ten years popped like an air bubble and she became almost genuinely girlish. Her grandfather was groping for her elbow, anxious not to be removed from her side. Tycienski was glaring about predatorily for a drink.

“Pa is coming,” Ted explained. “But he’s distraught, you know. Another plane is late.”

“Oh dear,” Tori sighed. “Is there anything we can do?”

“It’s not our fault,” Ted said firmly. “But it still shows up in the statistics. We still have 98% of our planes landing on time, but it’s the 2% that really hurts. Imagine if 2% of your body was on fire.”

“It’s not just the statistics!” Andrew growled from the doorway. “It’s the inconvenience!”

“Hello Pa,” Ted cried weakly.

“People have placed their trust in me. They’ve agreed to be imprisoned in one of my aeroplanes for two hours. And I’ve let the whole blasted lot of them down!”

“You haven’t let them down,” Ted countered petulantly. To him, they had rehearsed this infuriating conservation so many times that it now sounded as smooth as an exchange of how-do-you-dos.

“Andrew, stop fussing!” Tori flapped him to a spare seat, as if she had decided in view of the anarchy in the house to take charge. “It’s an ingenious idea to delegate. Appoint someone else responsible for these things and then take it out on them.”

It seemed for a moment that Andrew might scream at her, but he had then stared down at the floor so that nobody could see his face and he had seated himself quietly at the table. When one of his shaking hands twitched violently, Tori glanced at Tycienski for reassurance. Tycienski looked bored. He’s probably not a boyfriend, Ted reflected. Tori was one of those women who tend to make friends with men because they find all other women to be humourless or unadventurous.

Now Andrew was gazing at them. “This isn’t a joke, you know,” he maintained stolidly. A girl in an apron had appeared, somehow without any prompting, and she placed a tiny laptop beside his wine glass.

A blankness was pawing all over the air, waiting for everything to recommence. They picked uneasily at their soup whilst thousands of feet above Europe an aeroplane continued its belated progress.

Janet had been walked down to a seat at the table. She was still snivelling to herself about the removal of the new girl from the house. The agency had phoned the kitchen unexpectedly and they had sounded strangely electrified. The manager of the agency had never actually fired anybody before and he saw taking this sort of disciplinary action as a good way of topping up his CV.

The others appeared to expect Janet and Tori’s grandfather to rejoice in each other’s company, like two small children who have been sat together. As if in defiance, the pair remained stubbornly uninterested in each other.

Tycienski’s whisky glass was empty and he began to perk up, taking a peevish interest in his surroundings. “Does your pilot get anything if he lands on time? Like a book token?”

Andrew glowered at him with absolute loathing.

Tycienski gave a reptilian smile and he then turned to John McIntyre, who nobody had noticed until now was sitting with them at the table. “Tori mentioned you earlier and I was wondering if you are the John McIntyre who wrote a theological pamphlet called On the Love of God? I purchased a copy recently, I mean along with a crate of books at an auction, and I want to know whether it’s worth anything.”

John McIntyre blushed. No, he wasn’t this John McIntyre. In fact this was a common mistake. He began to explain that he wasn’t even a relative of his more eminent namesake.

Everybody wished vaguely that they could arrive at a subject of common interest, but nobody had the slightest notion of how this could be accomplished. Tori could only talk about the last bar she had been in and the unusual people who she had met or watched there. Ted’s default conversational setting was scandals amongst Edinburgh’s golf-playing social class. Janet was likely to gibber about the shocking behaviour of agency girls; whilst Patrick Blackwood was a living archive of local farming disputes. Between them, they knew so much and yet none of it was remotely connectable.

Alas, it is so often thus. Whenever somebody is sitting in front of you, their head is filled with an incalculable ocean of knowledge and memories, but you have to focus on the tiny pipe of their lips and its pathetic splutter of gush.

Tori felt compelled to ask about the other, second Mrs Worthington, Andrew’s wife and Ted’s mother. Yet that mysterious speechlessness was descending upon her which always struck whenever the second Mrs Worthington was on the tip of her tongue. Andrew and his wife were not divorced and indeed they never referred to themselves as being separated. Unfortunately, they did not behave in any way to indicate that they were married either. They were like the Emperor of China and the Empress of India, two chilly, remote figures who lived on different continents. The last that Tori of heard of Mrs Worthington, she was staying in a hotel in New York.

In fact, Ted has also weighed up and discounted the idea of mentioning his mother. Pat Blackwood was an old friend of hers and he occasionally made very earnest inquiries after her. The last time that Ted had met his mother, she had looked unexpectedly tired and confiding. It was in one of those behind-the-scenes rooms at a wedding and coats were plopped all around them in dense piles the size of rhododendron bushes. It had been two months since the death of Bertha. His mother had been leaning against a pile of coats and clutching a tiny, monkey-sized bridesmaid who had fallen fast asleep in her arms. “You look even older than I do,” she had said to Ted. “And I feel so old. It’s like getting drunk, you know – you get more tired and confused and sad.”

His father was unpredictable when it came to his wife. He might start spitting like a cat. It might unsettle their guests.

A thought had sprung into Tori’s head and next she was chasing heedlessly after it. “Janet, while I have the opportunity…”

Janet only looked dazed but Tori was not going to be deterred.

“I’m curious to hear that story about the Waldingham fairies.”

Tycienski’s ears pricked up, though Ted could not tell whether this was at the word “story” or “fairies.” Tori had detected Tycienski’s interest but she gently rested a hand on his arm to quieten him.

“Somebody once told me that you had lived at Waldingham when you were a little girl and that you knew the church involved.”

Janet had dipped into herself, shuddering like one about to sneeze until she had scraped together a voice. “Yes, the girl in the story was my sister, you know?” Her voice sounded so very small and formal.

“I was told this story when I was a child,” Tori persisted hopefully. “The trouble was that it always sounded too fabulous. I’d love to know what really happened.”

Ted’s eyes sparkled. “This is a very jolly story but I wouldn’t believe a word of it. Come to think of it, though, I haven’t heard this story for several Christmases. We should hear it again after dinner, sitting around the fire with a hot toddy!” He paused to marvel at this scene he had painted.

Andrew now appeared to be discreetly speaking to the pilot of the tardy aeroplane on Skype, muttering threats to the “Captain” under his breath. He looked up at his mother. “She’ll be asleep after dinner,” he commented blandly. “You’d get a better version of the Waldingham fairies if Ted told it. Or John.”

John McIntyre smiled with distress and everybody immediately concurred that they could do better than his legalistic presentation of the story’s events.

“I don’t trust Ted,” Tori laughed. She turned to Janet encouragingly, as plaintive as a little girl who is making a last stand against bedtime.

The light came suddenly into Janet’s face. Tori realised that Janet was looking indulgently upon her, with her eyes now soft and keen. There were several breathless minutes whilst she struggled to marshal the details, stammering apologies at them. But she was soon satisfied that her vision of the house had settled down in the correct year and with the right people in place. Once the main dishes had been put before them, Janet’s food would remain untouched and it would grow gradually cold as she chattered away.