"You know what you've never told me," said Miranda, stretching out to turn the chestnuts on the hearth. The hound Tessa opened one soulful, tolerant eye at this invasion of her personal fireside space, shifted to find an infinitesimally more blissful space on the warm rug, and leaned forward into sleep again, long-nosed and couchant as a greyhound on a Crusader's tomb.
"I know a lot of things I've never told you," said Nicola lazily from the darkness of the sofa she was sharing with Lawrie. Miranda gave a little shake of her head, like a fencer acknowledging a point, at her own most uncharacteristic lack of precision.
"She does, too," said Peter, coming back from the kitchen with a tray of bread-and-mousetrap to be turned into cheese on toast. Peter had not, in all this Christmas holiday, been able to find a comfortable way of talking to Miranda, and had fallen into the habit of teasing his sisters in Miranda's vague direction, so that she might join in if she would. His only comfort was that he was not doing as badly as Ann, who found having a Jewish visitor at this time of year immensely disconcerting, and very obviously would be as kind and ecumenical and understanding as possible if only she knew how. It was to be hoped that Miranda never visited at Easter, or, that if she did, Ann would be away visiting friends of her own. "She knows more about Nelson than any sane person would ever want to know."
"It's a good thing the family includes you, then, isn't it?" said Nicola smartly. "Think if I only had sane people to talk to."
"No - I mean - " Miranda began.
The family fell politely silent as they would not have done for one of their own. One of the chestnuts leapt off the grate into the flames. Miranda neatly retrieved it. "I mean," she said again, confidently, "you've never told me what you and Lawrie did before you came to Kingscote."
"Hit each other in the eye and cried, mostly," said Peter. "It wasn't very interesting."
"How would you know? You were still at the hitting-in-the-eye-and-crying stage yourself, practically, and so was Gin," said Nicola, out of a feeling that whatever Peter thought he was doing, he shouldn't, on principle, be allowed to get away with it. "Are those chestnuts done?"
"More or less," said Miranda, who was as efficient at roasting chestnuts as she was at most other things. "Should we call Ginty?"
"More for us if we don't," said Peter callously. "Is Lawrie asleep? We can eat hers, too, if she is."
Lawrie sat up, with a lot of confused waving of arms and legs, and protested, indignantly, that she hadn't been asleep, it was just that she hadn't been interested in anything they were saying so she was resting her eyes.
"Because no one was talking about you, I suppose," said Ginty from the doorway. Her arms were full of bundled stuff, and she brought with her an enticing, cranberry-pine-needly smell that made Lawrie sniff the air like a pony and peer over the back of the sofa. Ginty turned the light on with her elbow. Lawrie blinked.
Nicola frowned. She had liked there being nothing but the darkness and the fire. It reminded her of The Dark Is Rising, which their father had read to her and Lawrie, as a special treat, one long-ago Christmas when he was home. Ginty knelt down beside the fire and helped Miranda clear the chestnuts to one side. She set out a trivet, and then balanced an old enamel saucepan on top of it. Tessa made a small sorrowful noise in her throat at this disturbance of her peace, and went to crouch by Nicola instead. Nicola obligingly scratched her ears, and buried her face in Tessa's warm fur to drink in the gorgeous biscuity smell.
"Whatever are you doing, Gin?" said Lawrie disapprovingly. "Making soup?"
"Mulling wine," said Ginty triumphantly. "Mrs Bertie says only one cup each, mind, and we're not to use the good glasses."
"What a thing it is to be considered grown-up," said Peter admiringly.
Nicola said nothing; she was looking at the neat graceful shape of Ginty's back and the pale bunch of her curls on her shoulders as she busied herself about the saucepan and the poker, and wishing she'd thought of it herself. "This time last year," she said wistfully, "Giles was here."
"So he was, and treating us all like the Other Ranks we are," said Peter. "At least this year we get a rum ration."
"We could have hot buttered rum," said Lawrie lavishly. "Like in books."
"Yes, we could, except that none of us know how to make it and we haven't any actual rum," said Ginty. "Make yourself useful and go and get some cups from the sideboard."
"Why don't you help her, Peter?" suggested Nicola, since it was certain that Lawrie would try to carry too many cups at once and then fall over an empty tinsel-box or something.
"And somehow, even with Giles absent on the high seas in the service of Her Majesty, God bless 'er, we feel his presence ever near," said Peter, his tone of voice much more jovial than the look on his face. "Why don't you do it, one asks oneself?"
"Because I've got Tessa and you're nearer."
"I'll go," offered Miranda. "Where's the sideboard?"
This made Peter get up, since Miranda was a visitor and could not be expected to run errands; and also he had forgotten that she was there, which he found deeply and inexplicably embarrassing. He and Lawrie fetched the cups; Ginty carefully ladled mulled wine into them; and they settled back to drink mulled wine and eat chestnuts. Nicola found the wreathing smell and the warmth of the cup under her hands rather more enjoyable than the wine itself; she wasn't sure if it was supposed to taste burnt, or whether Ginty had done something wrong.
"What was it you were talking about when I came in?" Ginty asked, sitting on the hearthrug with her chin propped on her knees, poised uncomfortably between being one of them and being on company manners. It was odd, Nicola thought, how Miranda had been the outsider, despite all of their good will towards her, until Ginty came in.
"Miranda was asking where we went to school before Kingscote."
"Oh." Ginty looked deeply, charmingly mischievous. "And did you tell her?"
"No," said Nicola, and wished she'd said not yet.
"They got themselves expelled," said Ginty with great satisfaction. "Father was at sea and the London house was let, and Ann had just gone to Kingscote. We were living in a village near a place called Armiford, and there was a school just up the road, so of course we went there as day-girls. It was run by some women who had come from Austria."
"Refugees?" asked Miranda.
"I don't think so. I don't really remember, we were only there for a term. They specialised in delicate children, so Ma thought it was just the ticket for the twins, particularly as they'd just got over scarlet fever. So off we trotted every day in the company of some triplets - "
"Yes, really - and as a special treat because they'd been very good and hadn't given anyone scarlet fever in months, the twins were allowed to be in the Christmas Play. They were terribly big on plays there, and on sales. All the Sales had themes, it was the maddest thing you ever heard of. Fairy tales and Victorian allegories and so on. But the plays were always religious. Shepherds at the manger and scenes in modern dress, and that kind of thing. Very worthy."
"I can't see Keith going for scenes in modern dress," said Lawrie, peeling the skin off her last chestnut.
"No more can I," said Miranda, looking amused.
"Anyway," continued Ginty, "there they were in the Play, and the day before the Play it was the Sale, and at the Sale they always had a super-special doll's-house made that they raffled for charity."
"I'll tell her the rest of it," said Nicola, feeling the skin-prickling of a much smaller Nicola's remembered embarrassment. "It was the end of the Christmas term and it was dark by four o'clock, and we'd stayed late to do the carols. Mrs Maynard - the triplets' mother - was supposed to be running us home in the car."
"Tell them about Mrs Maynard," said Lawrie stickily.
"I will, in a minute. So, anyway, I left my halo on the stage," said Nicola gruffly, "and I had to go back across the Hall in the dark, and I really hated being on my own in the dark back then."
She did not explain that it had generally been the outdoor dark that filled her with a great, cold, empty horror, like being some creature all alone and quiveringly small on the side of a hill where at any moment a hawk might swoop down and eat you. She didn't explain, either, that the unfamiliar shapes of the half-assembled stalls and the foliage-draped wishing well had made the Hall a liminal place, half indoor and half outdoor, dreadful as a minotaur. For one thing, since then her sympathies had swayed to the side of the hawks, even if she still didn't much fancy the idea of minotaurs. For another, there were some things one didn't - couldn't - tell even Miranda. "So I tried to run all the way over to the stage with my eyes shut..."
"And she ran slap into their perishing doll's-house and knocked the thing to flinders," said Ginty, her voice very amused. "and they gave her a great talking-to about the poor tubercular orphans it was being sold in aid of, and she gave them Nick-face."
"She did what?"
"You know exactly what," said Ginty easily. "That pull-my-soul-out-with-pincers-if-you-must-but-for-pity's-sake-get-on-with-it look. If Kempe ever does A Tale of Two Cities, Nick could be Sidney Carton like anything."
"No, she can't. She can be the other one," contradicted Lawrie. No one paid any attention to her.
"And they threw you out because of that?" said Miranda, her face gone dark and fierce, and more of a piece with the earlier firelit darkness than with the electric light and the television in the corner, and the pile of half-made paper decorations on the table. "Excuse me, but I can't think of anything stupider."
"No, they threw them out because they brought in the Maynard woman to sit Nick down over coffee and cakes and say don't you realise you're making the baby Jesus cry and Nick said she didn't believe in him and nor did Ma, not really," said Ginty, her voice full of remembered relish at someone else's row. "And then Lawrie, who they'd dragged along because they had some demented idea they'd got the wrong twin and Nicola actually was doing the Sidney Carton act, said - well, I can't remember what she said about Catholics - "
"Nor can I," said Lawrie sadly. "I wish I could."
" - but Ma said it was the most ill-judged thing she'd heard since she last had to give house room to Aunt Molly and they might have taken us back if it hadn't been for that. But as it was, there wasn't any room for us in the New Year, so we went to the village school, which was easier on Ma anyway, so she said. Well, I went to the village school. Lawrie caught something they thought was going to turn out to be polio, but it wasn't."
"Well, there's one thing to be said for those Chalet School people," said Nicola hardily, telling herself that the unexpected itchiness in the back of her eyes and nose was the result of Gin using too-pungent herbs in the mulled wine, and not tears stored up from long ago, "and that's that they made Keith look almost reasonable. Are you going to make cheese on toast, Peter, or are you waiting for Ann to come and do it for you?"
"I'll do it," said Peter, cheese on toast made at a fire being a properly manly thing, and not to be left to sisters. "I thought I might have anchovy paste on mine instead. Who wants to join me?"
"Ugh," said Lawrie. "If you're going to eat disgusting fishpaste, I might as well have gone to that meeting about the bypass, along with Rowan and Ma."
No one found this in the least comprehensible. Nicola and Ginty were both, separately, feeling that it was a good thing the subject of Catholicism had been dropped, and Peter was using a bit of old crust to clean the toasting-fork, so it was left to Miranda to listen in a kindly sort of way as Lawrie explained whatever correlations there might be in her head between bypasses and fish and then looped back towards the Chalet School.
"I wouldn't have wanted to stay there, anyway," Lawrie said finally. "They had the same Play every year."
"No, they didn't," said Ginty. "The year before we were there, they did some old Dutch legend or other, and Mrs Maynard sang that song about the little churches."
"Little boxes, you mean."
"No, of course I don't mean little boxes. Can you imagine Mrs Maynard standing on stage singing about little boxes? It was all about the churches in Brittany being white and having bells. Quite nice, if you like that kind of thing," said Ginty, showing off a little.
"Anyway, so do we have the same Play every year at Kingscote," said Miranda, ignoring this digression and going back to Lawrie's original point.
"We have different ones in the summer," said Lawrie captiously. "And anyway, what I mean is, it might have had different scripts, but it was always the same play."
But no one found this any easier to understand than the fish and the bypass, and Peter turned on the television; and soon even Lawrie wasn't bothering to argue any more, because they were showing The Wicked Lady and she was imagining herself as a highwaywoman.
"You won't tell anyone, will you?" said Nicola privately to Miranda. "I mean... what with the grime sheet I've clocked up with Keith..."
"They must have told her when she agreed to take you and Lawrie. That you had previous, I mean," said Miranda for the pleasure of teasing out an unwilling smile from Nicola's over-serious face. "I say, I've just thought. Do you think that's what's been making Keith give you the fish-eye all these years? I mean, do you think she looked at that ludicrous business with the train, and thought, oh, no, here we have a pattern of antisocial behaviour? Or whatever it is they say, when they mean, watch this particular infant and make sure she doesn't set fire to the Chemistry Lab or hang Crommie's bloomers from the flagpole?"
"You mean that doll's-house was the real original bear that coughed?" The more Nicola thought about it, the more likely it seemed.
Miranda shook her head. "It can't be, not really. It's cracked."
"It's just like Keith, though," said Nicola darkly.
"It's just like something out of some footling book called Fun In The Fourth, you mean," said Miranda, still irate on Nicola's behalf.
"Well, we're in the Fifth now," said Nicola, grinning at her madly. "So we should be safe, shouldn't we?"
"If you say so," said Miranda, unconvinced, and became aware that Peter was offering her, as the visitor, the most bubbly and least charred piece of cheese on toast. She thought about how different people were in the holidays from at school, and wondered uneasily how much of the difference was because she was there to observe them; and after a while she and Nicola found themselves agreeing that they weren't all that struck on the film, and going out into the tiled cold of the scullery to do the washing-up.