'Are you sure this is all right, Nick?' Miranda asked, smoothing a wrinkle from the fabric of her skirt. 'I mean, I don't know Patrick, not really, and Daddy does flap so when it's people he doesn't know—'
Miranda, plainly, was also capable of flapping, in these particular circumstances: but one didn't mention it, natch. 'Yes, of course—' But, equally plainly, the flap wasn't only about the intricacies of parties, parents and introductions, which made appropriate reassurances difficult; one never knew what to say about things like that, even when Miranda brought them up. 'Patrick's ma wrote to yours, didn't she? And besides,' she continued, with deep relief, 'your pa has met them, hasn't he? Didn't Patrick say about a concert last half-term?'
'But—' Miranda went on, not yet willing to be convinced; luckily, at that moment Rowan materialised out of the drizzle, striking in ice-blue frills, competently managing umbrella and wrap and cab door in a manner which could not in any way, thought Nicola, be described as precarious.
'Cor,' said Nicola frankly, feeling suddenly rather drab next to Miranda's fairly splendid crimson velvet. 'Is that out of the Chest?'
'Hi Miranda—Nick—' Umbrella in the footwell, wrap positioned out of the way of the seatbelt, Rowan closed the door and nodded to the driver to continue. 'By Doris out of the Chest, to coin a slightly unfortunate phrase. I thought I'd rather this than anything Mum and I were likely to find in Colebridge, and I haven't time to shop in London.'
But Rowan sounded pleased, rather than frazzled, to be so busy, judged her sister. 'But you are enjoying it? The course, I mean?'
'Well. Not an unending parade of glee by any means, but I must say I was relieved to find that architects needn't be able to draw these days, and especially when the Merricks produced that nephew of old Sellars. He's working out well, one hears?'
'Mum says.' More to the point, so did Shep and Ted Colthard, however reluctantly and despite animadversions on the subject of agricultural diplomas. 'And you're being rather clever with a ruler—'
'Try computers and you'd be more to the point.' Nicola, who had encountered these objects only briefly and in passing, nodded respectfully.
'Temperamental beasts,' said Rowan professionally. 'Though I will say for them that they don't produce young at three a.m. in the dead of winter. But tell me, what were you two on about when I got in?'
Nicola, used to Rowan's abrupt changes of subject if not to this interest in her own affairs, cast about for something safe to say; but Miranda replied, apparently rating an adult opinion higher than privacy, that they had been discussing the party, and was Rowan sure it was all right and she wasn't crashing a gate?
'If anything, I should be the one asking if it's all right to hijack your taxi like this—'
'But Daddy was happy to—'
'And so are the Merricks happy,' said Rowan, with the air of one who puts an end to a conversation. Nicola, faintly alarmed, took a quick sidelong look at Miranda, but Miranda was plainly braced enough to be smiling friendlily at Rowan; so Nicola, with an inward shrug, added one or two new lines to her private picture of Miranda and thought, Lawrie-like, What am I, chopped liver, except that she herself deferred to Rowan's assessments far too often to be at all offended.
''S true,' she put in. 'What Patrick said was, his mother has an old school chum visiting, along with old school chum's teenage offspring, and wanted him to rustle up the odd friend to entertain same—' She paused, politely, for the obvious witticism, which Lawrie or Peter would certainly have made; Rowan and Miranda, however, declined. 'Sudden brainstorm—us visiting friends—why not invite them too?'
'Speaking of which, where are Tim and Lawrie? Coming separately? Or did Lawrie make a break for it in the West End? And come to think of it, I don't think Ma ever explained why cocktails on New Year's Eve rather than the usual fabulous orgy?'
'Drains,' said Nicola explicitly. 'And New Year's because if they couldn't do the usual and had to have scrudgy cocktails in London instead, better make it a different night and pretend they meant to.'
'So as not to invite comparison. One sees,' said Rowan. 'Not that I can see Helena Merrick saying scrudgy, no matter what her drains are up to—'
Miranda, who had found Mrs Merrick unwontedly alarming—for she thought of herself as equal to any number of adult acquaintances—laughed, reviving, and agreed that this was so.
A scant quarter-hour later they were through what Nicola privately thought of as the Receiving Gauntlet, and Rowan was looking around with an oh-but-I-remember-this expression at what had once been the Marlows' drawing-room. Nicola, inoculated by a previous visit against the strangeness of home become suddenly foreign--like seeing people in the holidays and realising they had sides to their personalities which never showed at school, she'd thought then and thought again now--regarded her sister kindly, and began looking around for Lawrie and Tim. There: Lawrie was at the buffet table—surprise, thought Nicola austerely—and appeared to be calculating the exact degree of holding back required of a friend of the family who was, first, young, and second, the twin sister of the de facto owner of a Merrick pony. Nicola, beckoning Miranda after her, made her own calculations and selected a fish-paste sandwich for herself and a gorgeous-looking chocolate puff thing for Miranda.
'D'you wish you still lived here?' asked Miranda.
Nicola considered, as she had, in one way or another, been considering since the summer they'd inherited Trennels. 'N-no, I don't think so. Not that I don't go for London, but—' Imperceptibly, she had come to—not prefer the country, but to feel that it was part of her; hawks and Patrick and Mr Buster and the splendid ghostliness of the snow-bound Spinney were bound up with Trennels in her mind, and to deny one was to deny all; in a confused way, she said some of this to Miranda. 'But I'll tell you what I really miss—'
'There's a sort of tower room upstairs—fairly magic—absolutely stupendous for staying out of the way of little jobs—'
'Show me later?'
'But natch—' Though she supposed she'd have to get Patrick to take them, if he could escape party duties; and despite what she'd said, truthfully, to Miranda, her stomach gave an unpleasant little lurch at the thought of someone else, even Patrick, having showing-off rights over what she'd always thought of as her place.
And later, it seemed, would have to be much later, for Patrick was suddenly at her elbow, whispering urgently that his Ma was suggesting in tones of authority that the Young People put on some records to dance to in the other room, and would Nicola please make sure he wasn't required to dance with T. Keith? And Miranda was being asked to dance by the presumed son of Mrs Merrick's pal, who looked awkward but rather nice, quite like Oliver Reynolds...
All in all, it wasn't until the old year had been seen out and the other guests were beginning to leave that they could get up to the tower room, Patrick, with an expressive look at the rubbery remains of a trayful of devilled eggs, agreeing that it was the perfect place to lie low, not that they'd be able to keep lying low for very long if he wanted his head to stay un-bitten-off... 'Though you two are probably safe,' he added; personally, Nicola wasn't so sure.
The wind was getting up; it came to Nicola, with an odd, almost seasick lurch, that although she still knew the house's every creak and groan as she knew Lawrie's crotchets, this splendid crow's-nest feeling, with the rain lashing the diamond-paned windows and the tips of the mulberry's branches brushing the glass, would never belong to her again. Miranda looked out, very blue-eyed, at the lights of Hampstead and the smudge of the Heath; Patrick's fingers tangled in hers in a way that she should find comforting; her brain, synapses firing seemingly at random, threw up the image of Mrs Merrick greeting them, so pleased you could come, Miranda, and how lovely to see you, Nicola, really, she'd seemed almost approving, shattering thought that that was...
Nicola disentangled her hand from Patrick's, touched Miranda's arm and said, to neither in particular, 'Rowan'll be wondering where we are. Let's go down.'