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95

Ted had assumed the duty of officially thanking Tori on behalf of the room. “Very well done, Tori.”

The others complimented her on her story, but in the ghostly, rather unreadable way in which people admire abstract paintings in the presence of the artist. John McIntyre remarked safely upon the story’s “liveliness.” Tori searched for evidence of Tycienski’s reaction but his face was as innocent of approval or disapproval as that of a lizard. Nobody queried the truth of the story – nobody asked whether there had really been a girl trapped in her car until she died. Yet nobody appeared to celebrate the story as a feat of invention either.

Suddenly Tori was hit by a bolt of panic. Chief Inspector Upensky had been sitting there beside Janet the entire time. He now met Tori’s gaze with an expression of alert disinterest, an expression which was as amiable as possible without being in any way warm. Perhaps Tori would get back to Edinburgh and forget all about this evening and then one day two policemen would be on her doorstep, pressing onwards politely but unstoppably.

“So can we be escorted to safety?” Andrew demanded, with a fierceness which caused every smile in the room to dive. “Didn’t the gunman run away through the flowers?”

Upensky looked up and his bumptious façade was wiped away in an instant, like a spot of soup on a table. For a moment a genuine policeman was peering through the costume. “No,” he replied mildly.

“What are your men telling you? Is there another gunman?” Andrew persisted. He was always making a fuss, always the single overheating middle-aged man in the stalled airport queue who demands to speak to the pilot, always snapping mechanically like a piranha.

Upensky had turned that twinkle in his eye back on again and he was at once back to his old roguishness. “We are at such an early stage,” he despaired, rubbing his hands on his dinner jacket “We will have to remain here until backup arrives. And you live in such a big house, with so many unexplored corners.”

“Well fucking well get them to arri…”

“These people!” When Tycienski cut across Andrew they firstly registered his laughter and then secondly, shockingly, the magnitude of his contempt. “Half of their lives are a conspiracy to pay no tax and then when their massive houses are attacked they want the state to send a thousand armed policemen.”

Andrew’s face was now a dread white and he was blinking with fury. His mouth had spread into a snarl which looked so unfamiliar that it was as if a wound had opened across his face.

His fingers twitched murderously over the revolver in front of him, apparently picking hairs off it. The policemen were congregating in alarm. Ted and John McIntyre both stood at the same time.

“Calm down, Pa” Ted pleaded. “I know the fires of patience – I’m in agony as well.”

“Why don’t we have another story,” John McIntyre suggested. “It will carry us through the time. You know, I have an unusual story,” he confided, puffing out with the sudden self-importance of a sparrow and everybody now saw that things were taking a disastrous turn. “There was the occasion that garden centre collapsed on my sister…”

“I’ve heard that one,” Ted broke in, with a strain of undisguised urgency in his voice. “And it’s too complicated for everybody to follow so late into the evening.”

There had been a general feeling in the room that for John McIntyre to speak about his sister would be as indecent as one of the agency staff joining them for a drink. They were grateful for the swiftness of Ted’s manoeuvre. John McIntyre receded instantly; perhaps he was crestfallen, but his fleeting ripple of self-assertion was smoothed back into the bland pool.

Where were they bound for now? “So you must have a story for us, Ted?” Tycenski prompted. If the room knew Tycienski as well as Tori did, they would have known that he collected such stories wherever he went and retold them on his website.

Ted was contemplating which path to take. “I don’t wish to talk about Bertha. My wife of many years,” he added for Tycienski’s information. When he said “Bertha,” the word seemed to shine like a gold ring. “Bertha was rather controversial in our family.” Indeed, Andrew had looked newly irritated at her name. “But this story concerns Stephanie, who came before Bertha. And after her as well, of course.”

“Stephanie Cringleford.” Janet swirled the name around with pleasure. She beamed. “A very nice girl.”

“I went to a boys’ school, of course, so as a child she was always at a distance. Our families bumped together from time to time, at local jamborees and whatnot, and here I secured a rather strained acquaintance – more smiling at each other than talking. We both went to Edinburgh, which in those days was a good stout university and yet one without any of the unseemliness of leaving your family and going to live on the other side of the country. We both went back to our families at weekends and we both went on the same train – I think that we finally clicked here. Afterwards, we felt rather foolish that our huge friendship had been previously kept frozen in seed packets for so long.

“I had always thought of her as being a bluestocking, a girl with an artistic sensibility. She always had an aura of the higher life around her. She didn’t have an artistic personality though. In fact, there was nothing dreamy about her at all. I suppose you were more likely to find her doing the household accounts than plumping the cushions in a boudoir. She was reading for engineering although she kept pretty quiet about this. She would occasionally disappear for a few days and then, when she got back, she would mention that she had been inspecting an oil rig.

“I was deeply in love with her. I never found her sexually attractive. If you are going to go to bed with someone you need to be able to laugh at each other. Stephanie was always kindly and understanding – wise, though it seems strange to use that word about a girl. Or rather it seems strange how unstrange it was to use it about Stephanie. I told her all of my problems – money problems, problems with my tutors, problems with girls – and she listened with almost the same analytical concentration as a psychotherapist. She gave advice and it was always sensible advice. It may seem lazy to you, but after a while I stopped using my own brain and simply relied upon Stephanie’s.

“Stephanie had soft grey eyes, she was as slender as a dancer and she walked with a kind of silken…”

“A very nice girl,” Janet repeated petulantly.

“But whenever I daydreamed about girls, I would always remember Stephanie with surprise right at the very end. I somehow felt that I was storing her, you know, for later. When my life became calm, well here was a calm girl, all ready to go. I’m aware that this sounds calculating, but you cannot avoid calculation on such an important level of existence. You can consume everything which is interesting in some girls in a single night. There was enough road in Stephanie, however, to last for years of marriage.”

Tori smiled with a mixture of amusement and ironical displeasure.

“After university we both stayed on to work in Edinburgh. One day I asked her to marry me. Kindly, even sorrowfully, but with a mercilessness underneath it all, she refused. Whenever she said something, it always sounded logical, but this time I couldn’t reconcile how logical her refusal sounded with how puzzling it was. There wasn’t somebody else – she was quite firm about this. For me, our minds and personalities had always seemed to fit so blissfully together.

“Anyway, you know that I soon met Bertha and that we went on to be married happily for many years. Nevertheless I dimly felt that some unnatural wrench, or some great disruption in the universe, had subtly taken place. I came to know Bertha more intimately than I did the table of my own hand. But there was always a tiny cold vein pulsing somewhere in the back of my brain which confirmed that she was basically secondary. I always knew it.

“How can I explain? – I mean, somebody might have been extraordinarily lucky in their career and they may have a job in an exciting and prestigious laboratory, and they may earn enough to satisfy their every whim, and their colleagues may be all irreplaceable friends, and yet they will still not be, as they had wanted to be as a child, an astronaut. I felt like this with Bertha and Stephanie. Bertha simply lacked some shade of the exotic which would have made her complete. If she was complete, though, then she would have been Stephanie.

“What happened to Bertha – well you’ll have to rootle around in my memoirs one day to read about that. Bertha had shared my close friendship with Stephanie since she had first met me. I know that Bertha also quietly sympathised with the idea that Stephanie would have made a better wife for me than she did. Bertha was realistic about these things.

“After Bertha had said all her lines in the play and trotted away, Stephanie came to me and I raised the subject again immediately, with no messing about. Would she marry me this time? Once again she was kindly and mysterious. Once again her grey eyes became infinitely wise and her voice became irrevocably bleak. Once again there was nobody else, or nobody else who she wouldn’t ditch to marry me. But no, it was impossible.

“I remained just as perplexed. Still, I told myself that I would just have to find another Bertha. I would have to try to make do with another beautiful, intelligent, loving woman who was still just that short footstep away from the threshold of perfection.

“Some time afterwards I was coming back to Joppa Grange by train. As usual when I had nothing on in the evening, I decided to get off at an earlier station and call in at Stephanie’s cottage. She lives about thirty miles south of here, almost on the border. It was a mild evening in midwinter and there was a strange stillness to the countryside – nothing was nodding in the wind. I walked from the station to Stephanie’s cottage, down a bridleway which ran across the edges of two fields and then through a hugger mugger of woodland. Might have been walking through an empty supermarket for all the birds and rabbits I saw.

“I soon saw a tall figure floating down the bridleway ahead and into the wood. It was Stephanie and I shouted after her. My voice – well, I felt like a little boy throwing a cricket ball and it seemed to drop down at no great distance from where it had begun. Stephanie slipped into the wood without hearing and so I went on briskly in pursuit.

“The ground was a carpet of dead leaves, all crackling underfoot. You had to kick away the leaves to try to locate the path, but I soon gave up and pressed ahead.

“I had almost caught up with Stephanie when she spun around and smiled at me. She looked magnificently lovely. By now, of course, her hair was as grey as her eyes, all cobweb coloured, and she resembled a farmer’s wife with her flat cap and wellingtons. She still had a girl’s face underneath the wrinkles and a woman’s slender body underneath the apron. Yes, she was wearing an apron – she must have come out of the kitchen, in search of blackberries for the risotto or what have you.

““There is something that you need to know,” she told me. I don’t quite know how to describe it, but the way in which she was smiling at once made me tremendously frightened. She was flashing that smile at me as if to dazzle and confuse me and it swooped over my face like a seagull. We had paused beneath a tree and she was embracing it with one arm. “Now listen carefully – this is important. Walk around the ash tree and look at me from the other side.”

“She was speaking so seriously that I buttoned my lip and did as I was telt. I nodded at her and began to walk around the tree and as I did so I could see the green sleeves of her jacket from the other side, and then the stripes of her apron, and then I was cowering in horror. For there was an ancient little man standing there in the apron, grinning at me and waggling his thick eyebrows suggestively. I ran back around the tree and the blighter walked back around to meet me on the other side and when we met he was Stephanie again.

“In the dim winter light, she looked just as lovely as she had done before. “This is why I can’t marry you,” she – or he – or whatever it was – said. “It is my story.””

The story was finished. They all stared at Ted for a second longer and saw that he was sniggering like a schoolboy who has detonated a whoopie cushion.

“No more stories,” Andrew growled. “Let us get on with our own story of how to get out of this fucking room.”

[Next instalment: “Phoning Up and Down.”]

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