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L'allegro

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If one lives in Galloway, one either fishes or paints.  Hilary Mansell’s experience of the former was confined to never catching minnows with a rod fashioned of a length of garden cane and a bent pin by her second and favourite brother—she took a heavy breath at the thought, but no olfactory memory of pink polish troubled her—and at the latter she was painfully inept. Edith had considerable artistic talent; it was a rare week when one of her efforts did not grace the art-room ‘gallery’ at school—but being Benjamin Keith’s twin sister had enjoined modesty upon her, and she never now picked up a brush. Hilary didn’t like Ben’s paintings—which occupied an uneasy territory between primitivism and abstraction—she supposed she didn’t understand them.  And Hilary would never have admitted, even to herself, that staying just a few long Scots miles from where Sandy Campbell had met his unfortunate end and Lord Peter Wimsey solved the mystery of his killing exerted its own thoroughly reprehensible fascination.

Edith was a little puzzled by Hilary’s telephoning to ask if Ben’s Kirkcudbrightshire cottage was available to rent—she guessed that her old schoolfriend’s impulsive decision to take on a country practice in Gloucestershire followed some serious disappointment, professional, personal or perhaps both.  But though their intimacy had once been febrile, its delirium had never taken confessional form, and once the crisis broke into mature cordiality, was notable for its reserve.

‘It can still be very bleak there in early March, my dear: and of course never dry. Wouldn’t you rather the South of France, or Italy?’

‘I like to be as close to the Arctic circle as I can manage for my holidays.  I did contemplate Iceland, but with the expenses of the new practice, the only way I could’ve got there was to work my way on a trawler.’

‘Shipped as a pretty cabin boy, like Polly in the ballad, and making the captain question himself rather?’

Hilary laughed. ‘Something like that.  Is it settled, then? The first two weeks in March? You don’t have to check with Ben?’

‘No, he’s left me quite in charge of renting the place while he’s in America.’

‘Is that where he is now?’

‘Well, Spain got sticky, you see.’

‘I do indeed. And with a baby too.’

‘She’s nearly four.  And a very precocious learner of foreign tongues. We shall have to stop calling her La Petite Déception to her face.’

‘Edie, you don’t still?’

Well—not often.  It makes Rosa so delightfully cross.  Anyway, I must go, the frightful Ironsides demands my attention.  I expect it’s another screed against some hapless prefect.  She can’t quite settle to having a younger woman as Head, and an incomer to boot, so the Sixth get the full benefit.’

‘She sounds a perfect dragon.  I expect I would have loved her.’

‘I was about to say she’s just your type, Hills. Blood for breakfast. Goodbye, dear.’

Hilary replaced the receiver with a smile.

*

The weather was unexpectedly sunny, though cold, and it rained only six of the fourteen days.  On those Hilary curled up by the fire, around a cup of tea or a glass of single malt and re-read all the Robert Templeton novels.  The house was a miniature edition of the two-roomed sort called in Scotland but and ben.  The spartan kitchen contained range, sink, a large winged armchair, a table and two plain wooden chairs; the living room a sofa, a low table, a pile of Ben’s painting paraphernalia and a stack of fishing rods.  A deep screened recess off the latter held a unexpectedly comfortable feather bed and a corner shelf just big enough for an alarm clock. Water came from the well across the lane, light was by oil lamp, the privy in the yard.  The daily (actually a thrice-weekly) brought what food Hilary requested from Gatehouse-of-Fleet; occasionally supplementing this with her own baking or a portion of her family’s plain, wholesome dinner.

The simplicity of these conditions induced simplicity of mind: Hilary neither tried to imagine what awaited her in Gloucestershire nor reflected on her hospital past, for that conjured David and the assistantship, a monad which she rejected with a mental gesture perilously akin to sour grapes. By the end of the fortnight she felt refreshed, renewed, ready to embark on a new episode in her life, which would bring the professional and social stability a woman of her age needed to be taken seriously.  

Near sunset on her last day, she was packing the car for an early departure the next morning, keeping behind only what she needed for a last self-indulgent, idle evening, when a young man arrived at the cottage.  At first she thought he was a hiker seeking directions: he carried a haversack and stick and wore thick boots, sturdy tweeds and a  heavy pullover.  But he moved to open the gate with a sense of secure possession. Hilary knew instantly this was the next lodger—Edith must have made a muddle of the dates—and groaned inwardly.  It would, of course, have to be a young man on his own. She touched her hair, unwashed since her arrival and simply brushed back from her wholly un-made-up face.

He peered about slightly myopically and reached, she saw, the same conclusion. 

‘Oh—’ he exclaimed. ‘Damn, blow, blast and bloody hell.’

‘Hullo,’ she said.  ‘It looks like we’ve been double-booked, doesn’t it?  I’m not supposed to leave until the morning.’

He was very nearly handsome, she thought, and quite absurdly young: he was tall, over six foot, but had the lanky, exhausted look of one who has undergone a recent growth spurt.  Dark, wavy hair spilled onto a high, narrow brow; his skin was pale but sallow-toned, the sort that shadows easily and attractively with tiredness.

‘That must be a contender for the least gracious salutation ever given to womankind,’ he said with a rueful grimace.  ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘you’d be surprised. I’m a surgeon; you wouldn’t believe the things people say coming round from anaesthesia. Hilary Mansell.  How do you do?’

She offered her hand.  He took it in a large, dry grip.

‘Alec Deacon.  I would, sort of.  I’m reading medicine.  Long way to go yet, though.’

‘Ah—you must be Edith’s nephew?’

‘The same, and at your service, though I fear not very usefully so.’

‘Well you might as well come in and have a cup of tea.  I’m sure we can work something out.’

She had lit the range for her dinner, so she added some coal and put the kettle on.

‘You mustn’t have any misplaced chivalrous thoughts, Alec.  I can drive to Kirkcudbright and find a hotel for the night.’

‘Oh, I say—I feel like I ought to offer to sleep in a hedgerow or something similarly Kibbo Kift, but—’ He blushed a rather fetching dusky rose.

Hilary remembered the years of embarrassment at straitened means. ‘Oh, goodness, I’ve been a student myself, don’t forget. It would be idiotic to have to blow the budget on something that’s not your fault.’

‘Um—that’s not—I mean, yes.  I suppose.  You mean you really don’t mind?’

‘Not a bit.’

‘You ought to telephone ahead, though.  Trout fishing begins later this week, and the hotels are all probably in a chaos of turning out.’

‘How you men do think of these things.  I’ll hop down to the phone box after we’ve drunk this.’

She did so, and to her horror, found that there was no room at any of the nearby inns listed in the book.  They were all either closed until next weekend or full to the gills.  The kindly proprietor of the Ellangowan Hotel offered to send the porter round to Mrs McLeod, who was not on the phone but sometimes took boarders, but after an irritable three-cigarette wait she rang back to find that a small McLeod had been taken ill with something infectious and no strangers could be admitted to the house.  It was growing dark: she could, if she started now, perhaps reach one of the border towns at a respectable hour—Langholm, perhaps; she remembered a large hotel there.  But there was no guarantee that it was open or had vacancies either: she dreaded having to sleep in a cold car on the side of the road.  As she trudged back towards the cottage, she rather regretted her airy dismissal of any gentlemanly gesture on Alec’s part.  It was quite ridiculous, in any case.  He was only a boy, and moreover, Edie’s nephew.  If Edie found herself in a situation where she had to spend a night under the same roof as Sam because of a mix-up she had made, Hilary would not think the least thing of it—she would rather consider any concern for respectability laughably suburban.  This brought her to the edge of intrusion into the privacy of both her oldest friend and her nephew, and she folded and put away those thoughts as an energetic nurse might bandages.  But they had irrevocably altered her view of the situation, and it was with something regrettably close to bluster that she announced to Alec her bad luck.

‘Oh.  Well,’ he said carefully, ‘I did think it would be silly to go tearing around the country looking for a room at this time of the evening.  I—I’ll take the kitchen chair, of course.’

This manifestation of masculine prerogative she would not protest.  They would have to think of a tale for the daily, of course: she would leave as soon as it was light, and Alec could plausibly say he’d arrived by the milk train and hitched up or something—the arrangement had been that she would leave the latchkey under the flowerpot by the door. Even if by some mischance, comment were excited, it would not, in a community comprised of so many artists, be destined for longevity.

The daily had three sons, all in their teens, and tended, absentmindedly, to cater accordingly.  The supper she had left for Hilary, augmented by the leftovers of the supper before that and some bread and cheese, fed them both amply.  One bottle of the half-case of claret Hilary had brought with her still remained, bringing the repast to the approximate degree of civilisation.  They ate by candlelight: Hilary had early learnt the unwisdom of too often moving the oil lamps, with whose delicate innards she had a relationship not unlike certain exasperating nurses’ with thermometers. 

Alec was easy company, and they had much in common: medicine, of course—Hilary found herself refraining from scabrous anecdote, and realised with amusement, near the bottom of the claret, that he was in all likelihood doing the same—and Oxford.  Twice she came to the point of asking if he knew Sam, but on both occasions found something else to say; if they were friends he would probably have remarked on the coincidence of surname by now, after all.

With a flourish that she suspected, once executed, was a trifle auntly, she produced three-quarters of a Dundee cake and what was left of her bottle of Auchentoshan.  Alec raised his eyebrow in a manner that didn’t look quite his own, somehow, but grinned.

‘You’re just like Aunt Edith.  She’s always implying my appetite is absolutely bottomless.  And it’s not, not at all—really quite normal.’  That deep blush again, wine-dark this time.

She felt heat in her own cheeks but smiled and shooed him into the living room.  She followed with token slices of cake, whisky, water-jug and glasses on a tray.  She put them down on the small table just to the right of the sofa, and busied herself with the lamps.

He put more coal on the fire, then curled up on the hearthrug, against the sofa, looking rather sensitive and charming.  Fire- and lamplight became him to an almost unsettling degree. In daylight, he was just a pleasant-looking boy, yet quite to put on a man’s flesh; in flickering light he was a separate order of being, an imp, a puck: 

Then lays him down, the Lubbar Fend,
And stretch’d out all the Chimney’s length,
Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
And Crop-full—

What rot I do think sometimes, she rebuked herself.  Strength—why, I could probably box the pipsqueak and come out of it with credit.  He chose that moment to shrug out of his pullover, jerking his shirt and vest out of the waistband of his trousers to reveal, for a moment, a lean, lithe expanse of back to the shoulder-blades.  He caught her look, and shyly and ineffectually rearranged his clothes.

‘Hope you don’t mind.  It’s awfully cosy down here.’

‘Goodness, no.  Liberty Hall.’

Settling herself on the sofa, she noticed the patch of black hairs at the open neck of his shirt, the shadow gathering on his jaw.  She looked away, poured two glasses of whisky, handed one and the water-jug down to him.  

‘You’re not at all, you know,’ he said.  ‘I shouldn’t have said it.’

‘Said what? You’ve lost me.’

‘Like Aunt Edith.  She’s a very bossy type on the surface, but underneath really rather confused.  And you’re quite the opposite.’  He sipped at his whisky and winced, adding more water before he handed the jug back to her.

Hilary thought of snapping well, you certainly shouldn’t have said that, but the callow sententiousness was really rather disarming.  ‘I wear my confusion on the outside, you mean?’

‘Oh, no.  That was clumsily put.  I mean—Aunt Edith has all sorts of ideas for moulding people and training their characters and so on, but she’s really very rigid herself: I don’t believe she ever once thinks about forming her own character.  And you seem the sort of person who doesn’t stamp around noisily taking responsibility for everyone, but exerts a lot of influence nonetheless—oh,’ he exclaimed, twisting slightly to look directly up at her, ‘I’ve overstepped.  I’m always doing that. It’s actually Aunt Edith’s fault, in a coughing bear sort of way.’

Recognising one of Edith’s favourite and least logical wise saws, Hilary chuckled.  ‘I always thought that one was rather potty, and now generations of schoolgirls will have the chance to as well, I suppose. How is she your coughing bear though?’

‘She badgered Father fearfully to send me to a psychoanalyst.  You know, I suppose, that Mother died when I was thirteen? She was a lot older than Edith and Ben, of course.’

Hilary nodded, remembering Edith blindsided by guilt at the absence of grief for a sister, seventeen years her senior, whom she’d never really known. She saw now, though at the time she had been buried too deep in her own concerns to offer genuine comfort, exactly how it had gone: the guilt had issued in determined, sustained interference in the lives of the widower and his children, themselves too upset to resist until it was too late.  She took a cigarette and offered Alec one, which he accepted readily.

‘I took it quite well at the time—thirteen-year-old boys are the most brutish creatures on earth—but it all rather spilled out at that difficult age, a couple of years later.  The stammer I’d had as a very little kid came back, all that sort of thing.  Anyway, the analysis didn’t work, but I got interested in it.’

‘You don’t—’

‘Oh, it cured the stammer.  Or it might have gone of its own accord. But nothing else much changed. I grew out of being fifteen by turning sixteen and then seventeen and it all started to seem a touch futile, though I liked Bruno awfully, so eventually I persuaded Father to let me pack it in.  Aunt Edith gave us both absolute yards of jaw about it, and I got in a bate and said something very beastly to her—we’ve only just made up properly, actually.  There I go again.  I forget she’s your great friend.  You seem about a decade younger. May I, please, yes?’  She refilled both glasses.

‘Three years.  She was Head Girl when I was in the Fifths. Tipped for the succession, you know.  I didn’t make half the job of it she did—too intent on my work.’

‘Really?’ he said almost excitedly. ‘That’s awfully interesting.  I know it often goes that way among boys—do you know George Todd?  He was Uncle Benjy’s fag at school, and they were practically inseparable until they both married—and Father has friends from Cambridge called Maddox and Blaize, who are just the same still—and—and’  he gulped hard and took a last long drag of his cigarette, flicking the butt into the fire. ‘I hadn’t quite thought of it being like that for girls too.’

Hilary suspected that Alec did not do very much thinking about girls.  ‘And you—?’ she queried gently. 

‘No.  Not my line at all. I managed to evade all that, thank God.  Not quite sure how.  My public school was the conventional type, you know: there was always someone wanting to lay something on you. But I dodged the lot.’

She stifled in her breast an infant leap of relieved gratification before she was even quite aware of its presence, and frowned. She did not normally misread such blatant hints.  But he had made roughly the same error about her, she reflected.

‘As it happens, not mine either. I can see how you thought it might be, though.’  The words were out before she realised that this brought them back to the uncomfortable terms they’d come in on, and impulsively reached to ruffle his hair; auntliness being her only remaining defence.

It went terribly awry.  He leaned back into the caress, arching his strong, wiry back and sighing deliciously.  Her withdrawal, lacking all conviction, simply drew his head into her lap.  She stroked his soft, clean-smelling hair—it was quite innocent, really—until a couple of years ago, Sam had often done just the same thing—oh, God, who the hell was she trying to fool?

‘Alec.  Alec.’  She pushed at his heavy head.

‘Oh—that was rather nice and drowsy.  Don’t stop.’

‘I must.  This is altogether too idiotic.  Let me up, please.’  She had used her professional voice, which she realised suddenly was an evolution of the Head Girl tonality she had never mastered to her own satisfaction.  For a dreadful moment she thought he was not going to move, then he did, scrambling to his feet.

She stood up, dusting imaginary crumbs of the untouched cake from her lap.  ‘I think we ought to go to bed,’ she announced.

His lips twitched upwards at the corners; like the raised eyebrow, it seemed an expression not quite fully possessed by him, or—chilling thought—as if he were possessed. What piffle, she thought, quite failing in her disquiet to perceive that he might have taken her words for a cheap joke.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, collecting himself.  ‘I didn’t mean to startle you.’

‘You didn’t startle me, you silly boy.’

‘Oh—what did I—?’

‘It was just ridiculous, grotesque.  I mean, can’t you see?  We were behaving exactly as someone with an obvious mind might expect.’ 

‘I don’t think I have an obvious mind, and I don’t think you do either. And I don’t think it was the least bit ridiculous or grotesque.’

She looked about for things to tidy bangingly, but they had made almost no mess: the cake, the jug, the bottle of whisky and her glass were all on the tray; his glass, at the base of the sofa, was still half-full; the ashtray contained only her own single cigarette-end.

‘Oh Alec, stop being such an unmitigated ass.  Good night.’  She bent to the tray and added, ‘Take the rug on the back of the sofa; you should be warm enough, with the heat from the range.’

‘Stop a minute,’ he said, ‘I’ll clear those, since I’m to be in the kitchen anyway.’ Realising the sense of this—men, she thought, and their practicality at the moments of most ludicrous emotional tension—she straightened up.  He looked as if he were about to speak, then shook his head.

‘Oh look, please don’t be upset.  It meant nothing,’  she said.  ‘Already forgotten. Good night—what is it, then?’

She met his gaze properly, and saw that she had wholly mistaken him: what she had thought sheepishness was just his incipient short sight.  He would soon, she thought inconsequentially, need to wear spectacles.  He gave that queer, possessed smile again: it was intimate, charming, too-experienced and left her in no doubt at all.  He drew her into his arms and kissed her.

*

She dreamed that the car that had taken her brother away had drawn up outside the cottage, and he had come in at the kitchen door, wearing his uniform with the glistering buttons.

‘I thought you were dead,’ she said. ‘All this time.’

‘I was—I am still—’ he replied, and she woke, on her own in the feather bed.

Her livid dismay slowly shaded into shame at her recollection of the events of the night before.  Alec had intuited from a few broken syllables what she was not prepared to let him do and why, and seemed wholly disinclined to press the matter.  When she thought of what they had done instead, she could have wished she had taken the risk.  It had been so adolescent, so autoerotic, so—she heaved with a laugh that ended in a retch—public school.  His embraces were deft and imaginative, and she had relaxed into them, confident that she was not his first, no seducer of innocence.  That happy conviction had lasted a only few moments after he had reached the utmost bound of his experience, where fumbling theory replaced adroit practice, and she realised in what very salient way she was indeed first.  

At the time it had been excruciatingly funny—hilarious, Alec had said, and the feeble pun had brought on another labile bout of giggles.  When they had subsided she had shown him what to do, and he had done it with breathtakingly satisfying dispatch.  And then he had done it again, before she could quite recover from the first. David’s ingenuity had never stretched that far, but then again, neither had her own.  

But none of it now seemed in the least amusing or delightful, but sordid and degraded, th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame—not even that. Th’ expense of spirit in Alec’s crumpled but tolerably clean handkerchief, it had actually been—the which article—she patted the mattress in a reflexive agony of disgust—yes, was all that remained of him in her bed.  She sat up, and understood that her misery was to be compounded by a whisky hangover, a tight, humming, iron coronet of pain.  She rolled out of bed and put on her dressing gown.  The alarm clock read ten past six.  It was ghastly, but at least that bit of it was all right.

From the kitchen came a loud, aggressively masculine cough, which returned her momentarily to her dream—coming to cognisance of the quality of the light through the curtain, she realised it must be much later in the morning than she had planned to rise.  She had forgotten to wind the clock.  Had Alec been surprised by the daily?  Even in her debilitated state she was aware that her immediate impulse, to rush headlong into the kitchen to verify that this was no more than panicked fantasy, was the very worst thing she could do if it turned out not to be.  She forced herself to stand upright and leave the screened recess.  She drew the curtains, blinking painfully though it was rather a dull day, and then turned to fetch her wristwatch from the coffee table.  That meant facing the sofa with her scattered clothes on it, but it must be done.  At that moment a man’s voice, not Alec’s and not raised, but hard and strident with exasperation, sounded from the kitchen as if there were no wall there at all.

‘I’ve had quite enough of this crap, my dear—it’s become impossible—one can’t trust a word you say—’

The door between kitchen and living room flew open.  The man who stood framed therein was fair, wind-tanned and blue-eyed—rather older than Alec, but probably still five or six years younger than she.  He was slightly-built and of no more than average height, but in all her dealings with authoritative and arrogant men, she had never encountered magnetism quite like his.  And the force it exerted on her was repulsive.

He raised his eyebrow and the corners of his mouth curled up mirthlessly.  A word returned to her from the half-forgotten, informal Spanish lessons she had attended at school—solely because Edith had; she had no interest in the country or the language—duende, a revenant, a possessive spirit.  Hilary’s mouth opened and she emitted a little screech of brutal abjection which signified I hate you, I hate you.