Actions

Work Header

Rare Accidents

Chapter Text

Colonna Kimball consumed the last few pages of Outlaw Marshal and a barley sugar with a sigh. Tex O’Hara was a favourite writer of hers, insofar as one had favourites in a genre whose pleasures were those of impersonal replication of stereotype. Apart from the first, Lone Star Trail, clearly apprentice work and full of howlers, and the most recent, which took a turn into something Colonna could only think of as modernism, his works offered an usually rich concentrate of formulae: heroes plaited of whipcord leather and steel cable, incidental females of an unusually satisfying spungiformity, action resolutely linear, dialogue screwed down to a terse minimum.

She had brought nothing else to read. The other inmate of the compartment was a short dark man of about her own age (which was almost twenty-eight) with a fleshy, ferocious face. His wide-brimmed hat rested on top of a copy of the Sporting Life on the seat beside him. He was reading a green cloth-bound, gold-stamped volume of what looked like black-letter type, chortling occasionally, and marking the margin with a pencil-stub.

A book was to Colonna an impenetrable social palisade; she could not fathom people who regarded reading matter as a loose stakepost or postern gate to admit conversation. Her fellow traveller being thus uninterruptable, she was left with the view, which was scrubbily semi-industrial, and her own thoughts, which were uneasy. The last year or so had been unremittingly beastly, beginning with Jan Lingard’s death. There had been less of a to-do about it, in and of itself, than she had expected. Although Colonna was the senior of the two of them on the ward that night, Pratt had been rostered ‘first’, and she had done herself no favours by cravenly rushing to heap blame upon Nurse Kimball, while Colonna’s indifference to the initial inquiry had lent her an inadvertent air of stoic contrition, and no further action was taken.

Rather than tender her resignation immediately (after all, no-one who left was ever readmitted, it would be a waste of impossibly fatiguing years) she had stuck around―just to see what happened next, really. No, that wasn’t quite honest. There had still been Valentine. Her skirmish with Macklin had come to nothing in the end, but she and Colonna quarrelled more often after Jan Lingard―because of Jan Lingard, though he was never the ostensible matter of contention. Valentine understood her action, the reasons for it, and she was scandalised. Perhaps, Colonna reflected, remembering Valentine’s face as she spoke of the asylum and its dreadful baby, because her own impulses in that direction extended beyond Colonna’s own, to organise these matters for those who were not of sound mind. Vivian’s didn’t, and she had been simply grateful that Jan’s suffering was not prolonged. It was the first time, Colonna realised, that Vivian had ever thanked her.

Still, the affair with Valentine trailed on until Colonna’s final examinations, which she passed with neither difficulty nor distinction. There was no hope she would be retained at the hospital, so she did not apply. She and Valentine parted with promises to write and meet. The former they perhaps both thought to honour. The breach had not been for the reasons Colonna feared; that made it no less painful, but more susceptible to Colonna’s usual anodynes of new clothes, Turkish cigarettes and Formosa gunpowder tea. She went to visit her father in Hertfordshire, in the house in which she had grown up, and stuck his valetudinarianism and the miasmatic traces of her parents’ sordid rows for a very respectable four and a half weeks. Mother’s Hampstead set-up was more congenial, and there she stayed several months. It was from fluttery little Miss Lethbridge, whom she dutifully squired to shop at Liberty and take tea at the Café Royal followed by cocktails at the Gateways in Chelsea, that she learned of the post at Cottage Hospital. And the rest, though not to Olive Lethbridge, to whom the commodity was unknown, was silence.

The man looked up from the Sporting Life, for which he had exchanged his green-and-gold book. She could see now that it read Irish Texts Society along the top, and then some more of the odd-looking type. He caught her eye. She offered him a barley sugar.

‘No, thanks very much.’ She replaced the paper bag in her pocket. His brows drew together in a kind of haughty pugnacity, and then relaxed, as if he had remembered something. ‘I think inquiry as to your destination might be redundant, but it serves to open the conversation.’

Colonna didn’t think about men’s voices very often, but his was very nice, with a hint of glasspaper amongst mist, smoke and turf. It was recognisably Irish, but there was something rather classical about it, not wheedling or ingratiating at all. She was flattered that he had taken her for one of the racing fraternity, but she could not long continue the conversation in that character.

‘I’m afraid not. I mean, I am going to Cheltenham, but only to change for Lynchwyck Halt. I’m going to nurse at the Cottage Hospital near there.’

‘You don’t look like a nurse.’

‘People often say that. I always wonder what a nurse does look like.‘ Like plodding Pratt or fat Collins. Like Vivian. Like Valentine.

‘Fair play. Would you like to?’

‘Look like a nurse? Not really. Nobody does, actually. Girls always brighten awfully when people say what you just―’

‘Go to the races.’

‘Someone’s meeting my train, otherwise I would, yes.’

‘You’re a remarkable person, Miss―’

‘Kimball. Colonna Kimball.’

‘That also is a very remarkable name,’ he said, with a filing-cabinet look, ‘as mine is not. Brian O’Nolan.’ He extended his hand, and she shook it. ‘Is that the latest Tex O’Hara?’

‘Second-to. I couldn’t finish the latest one, what was it? Ridge of the Gallows. It seemed as if it were trying to be some other sort of book entirely.’ She proffered Outlaw Marshal.

‘Mmm. I’d say her clearing out to Arizona had something to do with that. An excess of verisimilitude in a novel is a thing I do not agree with.’

‘What? I don’t think I follow.’

‘Oh, your one―the young girl―who writes these. A Miss Lane. Lois? No. Leonora. Leo. Rather frail creature. Scrubbed up very nicely, though, I will say that. Ran off to Arizona with a fella who codded on he was the next Hemingway. Upset her lady companion very deeply. Nasty business. Hack competence cannot bear very much reality, Miss Kimball.’

Colonna, to whom Hemingway was barely a name, nodded in fascination at the revelation that Tex O’Hara was an attractive young woman, and in chivalrous indignation at the folly of her conduct. It would not have happened had Colonna been around to prevent it. She hoarded this thought for future, and extensive, contemplation in seclusion, and returned to the conversation.

‘Are you an author, Mr O’Nolan?’

‘Not-at-all.’ He rapped it out as if it were one word. ‘A civil servant. Johannes Factotum. Eldest of eleven orphans, for whom I work my inky fingers to the carbonised heart of their bone-marrow itself. In triplicate. Tell me this, when would I have time to pick up a typewriter at all?’

Colonna laughed.

‘You think I am joking, Miss Kimball. It’s perfectly true.’

‘But you don’t live in London, do you?’

‘No indeed. I am on my way back to Dublin. London is a most unwholesome city. I am never there but I’m wholly poisoned in the blood for a month after it. I went to meet a publ―ican named Trellis. Very curious fellow. We spoke of the insufferably high moral tone of cheap literature, and the necessity of subverting same.’ He yawned enormously.

It was a subject on which Colonna also had opinions, and they spent the rest of the journey in cordial discussion of popular novels and the pictures. As the train drew in, she collected her hat, coat and overnight case briskly; he fussed with his belongings. Awkwardly, for she had placed herself on the wrong side of it, she held open the compartment door for him: he trotted, unembarrassed, under her oxter into the passage.

‘Are you sure you won’t come to the track?’

Colonna actually considered it. His stubborn refusal to take account of the signals given by her dress and bearing was, to say the least, refreshing. Later, when there were no more decisions to be confronted, she would wonder what would have happened had she chucked it up then and there.

‘No thank you. Good luck.’

It was only when she was in the car on the way to her new lodging that she realised he had walked off with Outlaw Marshal. Well, perhaps he would make something of it.

*

Clive Theobald couldn’t quite remember if the peculiar name, which made him think for some reason he couldn’t quite place of the Sistine Chapel, had led him also to visualise its bearer. This epicene vision in moss-green man-tailored linen, tan brogues and hat, sprigged shirt and mauve tie, however, obliterated whatever more pallid picture his imagination might have supplied, and with it, some of his guilt. Inexperience and anxiety had led him to respond rather too committedly to a former neighbour’s letter asking on behalf of a dear friend’s charming daughter about lodgings in the vicinity of Lynchwyck; fool as he was, he’d practically offered before finding out what the girl did for a living. The Theobalds’ villa had a north-facing extension: an apartment comprising sitting-room, bedroom and lavatory, which, because of its somewhat chilly aspect, went criminally underused. And some tolerably well-bred company for Muriel might be just the thing. Not to mention the extra income. All those house-calls didn’t come cheap for private patients.

Miss Kimball’s subsequent enquiry made clear her occupation, but by that time it was too late to back out without a snub to Miss Lethbridge, who took quite enough punishment at the hands of an extended family quite inexplicably possessed of a developed sense of social superiority. Clive still shuddered at the memory of tea with Olive’s divorced cousin―the husband had in fact died, but he was an Irishman, and it was of drink, which did not, to Clive’s mind, retrospectively confer respectable widowhood―and her spoilt only son, who, like all these mama’s boys, clearly thought that nice looks and a quick tongue were all he needed to get on in life.

Clive dropped as many hints as he could to Miss Kimball about the distance from the hospital and the insalubrious inconvenience of the accommodation, but these were met with cheerful assurances that she was an enthusiastic all-weather cyclist and nothing could possibly be more spartan or discommodious than the hospital cells she was used to. To imply more about the situation’s difficulties would be disloyal to Muriel, and of that Clive (who loved his wife with few illusions but no reserve) was incapable. Looking up (for she had two or three inches on him) at the singularly-attired, dashing young woman whom the maid had just shown into the drawing-room, he thought that, one way or another, Muriel might have met her match.

*

Colonna found the Cottage Hospital reasonably jolly, on the whole. Matron liked her, a mutual sentiment; Sister had filed her as a little independent of men, but none the worse for it; and Nurse Jones was clearly too confused by her casual love-making even to pop her eyes and say oo-er. The pace was slow enough that all the thermometers had, after seven weeks, remained intact, a personal record. She had, she gathered, missed the decade’s quota of excitement when, shortly before her arrival, a young gentleman of the locality had been knocked from his horse and brought there, where he appeared to make a good recovery before being rushed to the other side of the country for emergency neurosurgery. This oft-retailed narrative was most interesting to Colonna for its frequent mention of Hilary Mansell, at present on holiday in Sweden. She sounded like a very promising person.

Colonna was disappointed only in that the hospital pecking order, even levelled as it was by the size and provincialism of the institution, largely precluded fraternisation with this lovely thing, who had exceeded every expectation: handsome, reserved, yet retaining the slight, edgy vestige of adolescent crisis. Delicious, but for all Colonna’s expertise and experience in transgressing hierarchy, a surgeon was maddeningly beyond reach. Summer ran out before they had a chance to exchange more than occasional professional words.

*

Having arrived ahead of time for her late shift, and rather than occupy herself in the kitchen or with Nurse Jones, with whom a mother, aunt or sister seemed lately to have had a privy conversation, Colonna threw her bicycle into the shed and dawdled down to her haven, a little overgrown box-plot set just off the drive. The sun was setting; a rather theatrical fog gathered in the laurel avenue leading down it. The stray marigolds were dying off, leaving evil-smelling heads of seed; a broken-down shed stood against a gapped hedge of arbutus trees, sparsely dotted with blasted berries. Colonna, inspired by the rank decline, tipped her fedora back from her brow, put her left foot on a rusty lawn-roller by the shed door, and struck an attitude.

     I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
     Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
     Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
     With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
     There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
     Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;
     And there the snake throws her enamell'd skin,
     Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
     And with the juice of this I'll streak her eyes―

A soft chuckle interrupted her, and she turned to see Hilary Mansell framed in the scrubby bays, a veritable Daphne, if that unfortunate nymph were partial to hard-wearing tweed from Simpsons of Piccadilly and sturdy old bespoke shoes. A late shaft of light pierced the mist and caught a spiderweb in the foliage above her head; it glittered; her red-brown hair ignited into a glorious Titian against a pale, discreetly made-up face. Colonna had abandoned confusion with her own fleeting adolescent crisis, and while an impartial observer must have owned that she missed a beat or two, she did not break character. She snapped off a twig of arbutus and strode towards Hilary, curled her left arm about, but above (Hilary being fully half a foot shorter than she) and not touching her shoulders, and with her right dangled the sad, pocked little branch before her nose:

     And make her full of hateful fantasies.
     Take thou some of it, and seek through this grove:
     A sweet Athenian lady is in love
     With a disdainful youth: anoint his eyes―

‘You’ve had some training. Or rather a lot to drink,’ remarked Hilary, stepping courteously out of the untactile embrace.

‘A year in rep. I never take a drop when I’m going on duty. I hold a rather solemn, twentieth-century view of nursing, you know. ’

Hilary ignored this drollery. ‘Who did you play? In the Dream, I mean?’

‘Care to guess?’

‘Well, you were a very nice Oberon, but I wouldn’t say you were a good one. And he’s not done as a breeches part, is he―so Titania perhaps? Puck?’

‘Not me. Try this.’

Colonna’s shoulders slumped an inch or two and her knees knocked minutely. Her jaw loosened, and the sharp, angular planes of her face turned to suet. Humourlessly passionate and hollow-voiced with earnest jealousy she intoned,

                                            O happy fair!
     Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue's sweet air
     More tuneable than lark to shepherd's ear,
     When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
     Sickness is catching: O, were favour so,
     Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
     My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
     My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody.

‘Oh―good God,’ Hilary whispered. ‘How hilarious. How dreadful. I’d never considered Helena might be so much a real person; I thought she was just―a point on a quadrilateral. And you never thought to go on with it? I would’ve thought you’d have been rather an asset.’

‘There aren’t quite so many parts in my weight class, if you see what I mean. Excuse me, Dr Mansell, my shift―’

‘Oh yes, I’ll stroll up with you. I’m just going off, but I think I owe Matron an attentive coffee. I rather scanted her on our last appointment.’

They turned down the laurel walk.

‘But surely,’ Hilary resumed, ‘there are lots. All the character parts; don’t you take what you’re dealt in rep.?’

‘Sure do,’ she said, being a Tex O’Hara hero.

‘And you mean you―’

‘Can’t really do character, yes. Isn’t it peculiar? Because in my head I can swash and buckle with the best of them: knights in shining armour, pirates—cowboys, you name it. But I’d get on stage, and it just wouldn’t answer. I mean, I could hold my end up, you can’t be a prima donna in provincial rep., but what I actually liked and wanted to do was play straight. Meaty parts, not simpering and mincing as Ophelia or Juliet: I’m not quite that daft. Antigone. Isabella in Measure or Beatrice in Much Ado. Cleopatra. Nora in A Doll’s House, you know, or Lyubov in The Cherry Orchard. Not Carlotta, of course, which is I what I look like. And they'd take one look at me and decide what they really needed was an eight-stone brunette who didn't reach my chin.’

‘Yes, I quite see. I’m a terribly passive playgoer―I never think how very physical a job it is. Quite as much as medicine, in its different way. Sorry―I’m keeping you. You must be rushing to change.’ Hilary assumed the crisp, slightly gauche largesse of a Head Girl extending favour to the fifth-former tipped to succeed her. Perhaps you’d like to have tea sometime? You have my number, of course.’

Colonna prickled faintly at the condescension even as her heart leapt up.

*

Her first encounter with her landlady’s dim, overheated grotto of tulle and organza had caused Colonna to auto-diagnose sub-acute claustrophobia. Moreover, though accustomed to dousing hypochondria of her father’s assiduous and scholarly stripe with draughts of jargon, she found herself a very unhandy speaker of Mrs Theobald’s exquisite, century-old clinical dialect. But Colonna had already contrived to steer her taste from Pre-Gest Tea towards Earl Grey, with hopes of introducing a more pungent China in the month to come, making the weekly calls to the west wing of the four-bedroom villa just about worth the trouble for the dividends they bore in local intelligence. Colonna shrugged on her smoking jacket and prepared a lacquered tray with enamelled cups and teapot, silver cigarette box and a cloisonné tray of coffee creams. This afternoon, she had a distinct reconnaissance objective in mind.

‘Why, Nurse,’ Mrs Theobald always addressed Colonna thus, giving the impression that she was going to hold on tight for fear of finding something, ‘Dr Mansell is our doctor. It’s just that I’ve been so very robust since your advent that I’ve only seen her once or twice.’

Colonna cursed inwardly and contemplated a return to a regime of Brooke Bond. That would be drastic and self-punishing; an indulgence of the perverse appetite for coffee fondant was worth a try before such alarming measures. She offered Mrs Theobald one of the special, insipid cigarettes.

‘But between ourselves, my dear, I think I must seek a second opinion. I don’t think Dr Mansell understands my troubles.’ She emitted a puff of uninhaled smoke and coughed prettily.

‘She’s well-regarded at the hospital.’

‘Well, of course, and you are properly loyal, Nurse. But even a very nice institution must have a certain coarsening effect on all but the most select sensibility.’ An exhibiting gesture uncertainly but generously included present company in this august assembly. ‘Where a condition is merely organic I suppose it might be ventured that the moral qualities of the practitioner might be of less ultimate importance than a sort of crude competence, but a complaint such as my own, that is so much compounded by personal sensitivity, impels the most scrupulous standards of behaviour and association in its treatment.’

Colonna made a gentle interrogative noise.

‘She lodges with Mrs Clare, as you know, and in my experience―limited though it is in scope, I flatter myself I don’t want penetration―it is always those demure, Madonna-of-the-Rocks types who surprise one with their ruthlessness―and really, I wouldn’t say that depravity was too strong a word―’

Mrs Theobald settled to her satinette cushions and her theme, displaying unforeseen reserves of energy in the exposition of the latter. Colonna absorbed a dismaying volume of detail about Hilary Mansell’s domestic arrangements before a weakly patient expression, hands pressed movingly to her abdomen, heralded one of Mrs Theobald’s attacks and the close of the social portion of the visit. Colonna applied eau de cologne and cold-cream, settled and plumped the pillows, inscribed a patteran for the next medically-qualified reader of the gilt-edged notebook reserved for the annotation of important symptoms, and crept from the room.

Colonna, having experienced her fair share, had taken considerable care not to permit reversals of amorous fortune to turn her into a heavy, plain parody of herself. But she had judged Hilary Mansell above that sort of crude send-up, and to find she was not was more bitterly lowering than Colonna, whose personality combined selfishness and scanty expectations of others in a blend as piquant and unusual as her favourite teas, would have believed possible.

*

The notice had clearly been on the board outside the parish hall for a few days, because it bore blurred traces of the weekend’s rain. Colonna hadn’t paid it any attention before, but prior to her recent disappointment an amateur dramatic society would have been close to the least of her interests. Now, however, she thought it might be balm for bruised feelings to enquire, widen her circle a little. She didn’t mean to act; they were probably over-supplied with females anyway (in itself a consideration, though they were probably mostly fairly elderly and possibly bohemian in the provincial style) but to lend a tolerably experienced hand on the production side. She telephoned, spoke to one of the local schoolmistresses, who thought she herself couldn’t make the next meeting, but was sure the others would be delighted to welcome her.

The committee, which met in the hall the following Tuesday evening, was with one exception (the schoolmistress, as predicted, absent) male, in its twenties and (it turned out) unexpectedly accomplished. It boasted, furthermore, a startling trifecta of Hollywood good looks. Whatever Colonna had predicted, it was not this, and she was uneasily aware that it was either going to be more fun, or more trouble, than anything she could have prepared herself for.

‘Good evening. Miss Kimball?’ The young man who greeted her had true-black hair of the sort rarely achieved without chemical aid, but the breathtaking bone-structure and self-forgetful smile could not be other than his own.

‘Colonna Kimball, yes.’

‘I’d rather been hoping for a Cavalieri, hadn’t you?’ said the auburn-haired portion of the trifecta in a resounding whisper to the blond, who smiled indulgently but uncomprehendingly and absent-mindedly dug his companion in the ribs.

The man who had greeted her looked uneasy, and introduced first the two members of the committee not apparently destined for matinée stardom―Tom Phelps, Richard Peters, and then, contriving a note of somehow maternal reproof, the discourteous pair.

‘Peter Warren―’ this being the light-haired man unacquainted with the personalities of Renaissance Italy, ‘and Michael Hazell.’

‘You paint the sets, I suppose, Mr Hazell? I’d have expected an older man, too, from that―remark.’

‘What? Oh. Okay,’ he smiled without rancour. She saw in the boyish grin that he was the youngest of a bunch who were making her feel a little superannuated; twenty at most, she estimated. ‘Touché. Welcome to the clubhouse. This, by the way,’ he said, nodding towards the black-haired man, ‘is Julian Fleming, who sometimes has to be reminded who he is, isn’t that right, Julian?’

‘Well, that’d be because I don’t always play myself.’ The inflexion was wholly inscrutable. Colonna remembered where she’d heard the name before: this must be the neurosurgical case: he’d certainly made a quick recovery, even taking into account his evident youth and health.

She took a seat and outlined her credentials, and in turn the others gave potted histories. Fleming looked around the group, his equable vagueness entirely superseded by decisive concentration.

‘Look, it seems to me we actually have the makings of a semi-pro. company here. We could do something with a touch of ambition to it―I mean, not have to settle for some rackety old melodrama.’

They batted suggestions, all more or less unsatisfactory, to and fro. Then plump Peters, who so far had contributed only self-contradictory indications of assent, ventured,

‘Well, could we pull off some Shakespeare?’ He was the only one of them who had a local accent. ‘What about the first part of Henry IV?’

There was a small silence. Colonna looked at Fleming, whose face was still and planar as a Grecian bronze.

‘With you as Falstaff, Dickie?’ Warren drawled.

Peters stretched, blubbered his lips and said, ‘Well, shall I not take mine ease in mine inn?’

‘Fair enough.’

‘I think it’s quite a good idea,’ said Phelps. ‘We’ve got a lot of blokes, which is unusual, we―at least, all of us here―can handle verse where we need to, I presume. But it’s at least half panto―we can cut a lot of the politics―and there are some rattling good fights at the end. You actually fence, don’t you, Hazell?’

‘I actually do. It’s a bit different from stage-fencing, but I actually know how to adapt it too.’

‘No bottom to the boy’s talents,’ Warren smirked.

‘Well,’ Phelps said, warming up, ‘you could take Prince Hal, then, and Dick would be Falstaff, and I might do the King―and―’

‘I don’t think this is a very useful discussion.’ Julian said in a clipped, court-martial voice.

Colonna hadn’t enormously relished the idea herself, but she was intrigued by his complete recoil.

‘Ambition is all very well,’ Julian continued, ‘but we have to consider the audience too. We don’t want to be seen to be taking advantage―pushing ourselves forward at the expense of the local people?’

Dick Peters looked at his ample lap.

‘Well, I can’t see how you can fling that at me,’ Hazell said, ‘my lot came to Lynchwyck in eleven hundred and something, with Henry Two, Dick’s as Gloucestershire as Falstaff himself, and Tom and Bunny will bring the aircraft works crowd. And you said yourself we could aim above a rackety old melodrama.’

‘But if we’re to make it in the least comprehensible it will be a travesty anyway.’

‘I don’t see that, exactly,’ Colonna ventured, ‘if it’s well-produced, and moves at a lick, Shakespeare’s as accessible as most things. A great deal more than some modern stuff: you should have seen the dismal houses we got for Shaw. And we had a very glum Hay Fever, too―it’s not exactly excruciatingly funny, is it? Henry IV has a bit of Merrie England going for it without being noisily patriotic, which isn’t really called for at present―’

‘Oh really,’ Julian said, ‘it’s just not a play I care for, that’s all.’

This seemed definitive, if undemocratic. He was, after all, the producer.

‘Well,’ Warren said lightly, ‘You know I just like it when people get along. But it does seem rather a shame. I could just see Miss Kimball here and Mick in doublet and hose, going at it hammer-and-tongs with their little rapiers.’

Hazell made a notably poor attempt to suppress snorts.

‘You mean―’ Julian began, brightening. ‘Now that is a possibility―unconventional in a way, of course, but terribly traditional, as well―a touch of Sarah Bernhardt might just get us over the―and a red-haired Hotspur is just the thing. After all, seven is enough―’

‘Six―’ said Warren, furrowing his brow stupidly.

‘Seven with Emma, dolt,’ Hazell corrected.

‘Oh,’ Julian said, ‘that’s not quite what I had in mind. But yes.’

‘Hang on, chaps. I wouldn’t possibly have the time to take Hal―’ Colonna said firmly. ‘I’m on shifts at the hospital, remember―’

‘But we could more or less work rehearsals around you. Tom and Dick have their nights mostly free, and so do you, don’t you Warren? What do you do these days, Hazell?’

‘Oh, this and that. Not so different from yourself, Fleming. Waiting to see if a celluloid mogul will offer me an opening. But I’m always available.’

Julian looked about to offer a well-bred retort, so Colonna stepped into the breach with a studiedly stylish, ‘You are assuming that I’d be any good, gentlemen,’ than which nothing could have been more fatal to her chances of convincing them she wouldn’t be.

*

Despite herself, she began to enjoy rehearsals. The main players had achieved, each in his own way, roughly the same level of sub-professional performance. Dick Peters couldn’t really act at all, but had the native verbal and physical comic timing to support her lack of it as well as hold his own. There was no pathos or melancholy in his Falstaff, but there didn’t really need to be for Lynchwyck Parish Hall. Tom Phelps could transmit feeling, but his notion of handling verse left grubby elocutionary thumbprints all over it, which once or twice had Julian actually groaning in despair. Bunny Warren, who took a few of the smaller parts, was too gifted at ad-libbing to bother to learn his lines, and had a way, even in costume, of appearing to stand with hands in pockets, but he could shift from seedy Poins to pompous Glendower to roaring Douglas in half a heartbeat, each accent meticulously authentic. Emma, the remaining member of the committee, an undemanding person quick to own her talents were largely administrative, took Lady Percy and Hostess Quickly, both far too sweetly.

Hazell, as Hotspur, was probably the best of them: he brought a complex self-destructive neurosis to a role that Colonna had thought of as mostly noisy choler―he was the only one of them able to convey a sense of real psychological depth. He wants to be punished, Colonna thought, curiously unsettled by it; he rebels simply to provoke authority into thrashing the life out of him, and he doesn't even consider the others he's bringing down with him. The understanding galvanised her own playing, which she knew sometimes to be otiose or perfunctory. He coached their single combat with a wry, hard-faced patience which seemed to belong to someone else entirely, murmuring almost affectionately, ‘Come along, come along, Kimball, for Chris’sake fight as if you cared whether you get hit or not―’

Were Julian not so affable, he would seem risibly earnest: as it was, his dedication was infectious, and made for something close to harmony among a group of uncertainly-assorted people. It would, under other circumstances, be difficult to imagine Julian and Bunny working co-operatively, and yet they managed to rig a very decent lighting-panel and sound board with slender resources. (Said resources would have been positively etiolated without Bunny’s insouciant regard for the laws of possession; Julian assumed, in his gentlemanly way, that the kit marked with aircraft-works serial numbers had been decommissioned or willingly lent.) He was a more demanding producer than the ones Colonna had endured on the repertory stage, and a talented actor himself, but though he showed no compunction about shouldering the men out of the way to demonstrate how he wanted a speech or movement to go, he refrained chivalrously from ever doing the same to her, even when she might really have found it useful. One evening, after umpteen defective runs of the closing soliloquy of Act One Scene Two, she mislaid her patience.

‘Well, couldn’t you show me? You show the others.’

If he had not been so perfectly beautiful, he might have looked sheepish. ‘Just try and take the priggish stuff in your stride―’

‘I know what you mean, but I can’t quite hit it somehow. I really don’t mind if you demonstrate. Actually, I’d like to see you do it.’

His mouth turned down obstinately. He might have been half his years. ‘I―don’t think I can. I’ve a thing―’

Tom Phelps jumped up from a low form. ‘I say, Julian―will you be wanting us for Scene Three tonight? I’m meeting my girl at half-nine and―’ He collared their Northumberland, an appropriately Geordie mate from the works, and glared across the hall at Hazell, daring him to demur. ‘Fancy the Crown?’

‘Well, then,’ Colonna said when they were gone, ‘that was rather tactful of our own dear Bolingbroke. Will you?’

‘All right. If I must.’

He came down to the front of the hall, looking about him so naturally that she began to say coast’s clear, I heard Hazell’s jalopy start first time for once before realising he’d begun.

     ―herein will I imitate the sun,
     Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
     To smother up his beauty from the world,
     That, when he please again to be himself,
     Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at,
     By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
     Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
     If all the year were playing holidays,
     To sport would be as tedious as to work―

She knew at once she couldn’t copy this, for it was simply Julian playing himself, moving with a suppleness that inexperienced diffidence could not quite mitigate, his pretence of guile entirely transparent, his entire being straining towards some immense implacability which defeated any attempt at seriousness before it had even begun. She settled down to enjoy it.

     ―I’ll so offend as to make offence a skill
     Redeeming time when men least think I will.

‘That was terrific,’ she said sincerely. ‘But I can’t―I’ll have to find my own way―God, Julian, are you―’

His face, a mask of callow decision, was filmed with sweat, and his whole body was shaking. He turned to her with a ghastly fixed leer.

‘Perfectly, why? I say, you’re a nurse. Is every cell in one’s body really replaced after seven years?’

‘I’m not sure. We don't actually do that much―biology. Some cells don’t last nearly that long.’ The only example that occurred to her was sperm, and she thought she better not say that. ‘And some aren’t ever replaced at all, I think.’

He nodded as if she’d confirmed a telephone number or the time of day, put his hand in his pocket and retrieved the hall key. ‘Would you mind locking up? Just drop it through the Rectory door. Thanks.’

Julian was too decorous to scarper, Colonna reflected, but that forced march was pretty much the officer-class equivalent.

*

Time and activity acted as a salve on the small, deep lesion that was Hilary Mansell’s apparent mockery of her, but though she would never have dreamt of doing anything in the line of despatching a marmoset, Colonna did not quite forgive until she happened to meet her in Lisa Clare’s company. It was impossible to resent their unselfconscious intimacy and affection, one could only to yearn to replicate it. Mrs Clare was dark, buxom and very pretty―why did nobody mean this when they said feline? She thought suddenly of the Kitchen Cat in Kipling, but also of The Cat Who Walked By Himself. But she no longer knew which, if either, of these she was, nor how they applied to Mrs Clare’s very different sleekness.

Colonna often met Julian at the hospital, his mother being an assiduous donor of items of doubtful utility beyond their assertion of Mrs Fleming’s noblesse oblige (Edwardian bound volumes of Punch, one felt, could not be far on the perfectly-turned heels of all those bedsocks and bootees) and he her delivery boy. He rarely spoke more than a few words to Colonna, there being a gentleman’s agreement among the players that shop was taboo. Hilary took an exasperated, materteral interest in Julian which Colonna hoped was not mistaken: there were always such mobs of self-appointed gamekeepers in these backwaters. But Hilary could not be such a fool as to make an enemy of Lowe, a charming old wether who, but for his girth, rather reminded Colonna of little Bethel.

Colonna had a couple of days' leave for Christmas; she spent it pleasantly enough with her mother and her household of strays, bickering about communism as if it were not likely to be the last peacetime Christmas for some years. She returned to Lynchwyck on the 27th of December, to a note inviting her to a dance at the Flemings’ on New Year’s Eve. She brushed up her d.j. and went with hope of no more than negligible amusement, but it failed to meet even that expectation. Hilary Mansell had been confined to her bed with suspected flu and Lisa Clare (who may not have been invited in the first place, owing to her having once troubled the King’s Proctor) was in town. Emma and her brother, whose widowed father was abroad for his health, had an engagement in Cheltenham. Colonna soon found out why everyone but the staidest members of the Lynchwyck land-owning and professional classes had found some other spot to see the New Year in. The Flemings threw a party like carbon monoxide fills a confined space.

Colonna had been represented to Mrs Fleming as a young woman of good breeding whom social conscience had propelled towards nursing; she was fatigued by the maintenance of this character for even a few hours. Mrs Fleming indicated her service in the V.A.D. during the war and firm disinclination ever again to mention it in the same half-sentence. She appeared as oblivious as the training hospital’s virginal ruling ranks to any sort of divagation from what the world was pleased to call normality, but deliberately, not ignorantly so. The knowledge that her first invitation to Larch Hill was also in all likelihood her last tempted Colonna to affectation, but that would hardly be fair to Julian, of whom she had grown abstractedly fond, and who seemed to suffer rather with his mother.

Of her acquaintance the only other person of sufficient social standing to be known to the Flemings was Hazell. He arrived late, already tight, and after announcing to the maid who took his overcoat that his gay evening was all in ruins, so he might as well come here to slit his wrists, was fortunately intercepted by Julian before he could scandalise the Laytons and the Abbotts. He sat on the staircase being glumly confidential about his schooldays, which were about as routinely grisly as one might expect for any handsome boy with leanings towards the stage incarcerated in an English public school. Colonna inattentively applied coffee, tangerines and stale Egyptian cigarettes in rough rotation until he was presentable enough for Auld Lang Syne. Mixed company was really too tedious to be borne, she reflected, getting on her bike in the frosty air. The hilly, strenuous cycle home was the highlight of the night, and she was tucked up shortly before two a.m. So began 1939.

*

Hilary Mansell dropped Julian off at the parish hall. She’d been at tea with the Flemings when he’d got the news that Tom Phelps had been grounded on the other side of the Bristol Channel.

‘Oh, what an absolute pain in the―neck,’ Dick Peters exclaimed. ‘What the hell are we going to do?’

‘I’ll have to take King Henry,’ Julian said looking rather pale and strained, ‘unless anyone’s got a better idea. Tom walked off with the beard, the oaf, but I’ve got rather a good make-up planned. The historical fellow had some quite fascinating skin diseases, I believe.’

‘All right,’ added the postman, who was playing Bardolph, already wearing one of his purpled cheeks, ‘but that leaves the lighting and noises off―the props, all that. I dare say we can do some sort of rota for it, but we hardly need the extra pressure―it’s really fu―bloody dicey―sorry, Miss Deacon―’ he trailed off, with a look at Emma.

‘Quite all right. There’s rather worse in your speeches, if you’ve noticed,’ she said with a grin. ‘I might have a plan. Fellow staying with us―a good friend of my brother’s―has some experience in that line, I think: he’s pretty technically-minded, and I’m sure he could grope his way through a simple lighting and sound script like ours at short notice. I don’t think Alec was proposing to inflict his spinster sister’s amateur theatricals on his friend―poor chap’s joining his ship at Avonmouth first thing Monday and I daresay there are better things he could think of to get up to on a Saturday night, even in Lynchwyck―but I might be able to chat them up with the promise of a spree in the Crown after? Worth a try?’

Julian nodded. ‘Yes, all right. And if he can’t make it, I’m sure one of the aircraft works men―they’re coming as a sort of charabanc, though, so no idea what condition they’ll turn up in―’

‘Fingers crossed. Could I pinch your bicycle, Colonna?’ But at that moment Hilary Mansell entered with some strapping for Julian’s leprous effects, and Emma’s house being on her way back to Larch Hill, gave her a lift.

They’d just gone when Hazell arrived, full of the inane bumptious chat that in him signified stage-fright. Colonna stretched and loped off to change into her hose and scalloped sleeves. Some peculiar frangibility of atmosphere told her that it was going to be a night she’d remember for a long time―even in a world that would, in a few years, be changed utterly.