The Winter House
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Three women must find their way through a world changed by war... Set against a backdrop of London, Paris and the unchanging English countryside, The Winter House by Judith Lennox is a novel of rare warmth and beauty. Perfect for fans of Rachel Hore and Santa Montefiore. 'A novel of passion and intrigue, this is an enjoyable read populated by believable characters' - Candis For three girls growing up in the Fens in the tumultuous years between the First and Second World Wars, the Winter House was a special place of refuge and friendship. Winter or summer, they would meet at the old wooden house by the waterside to confide all the secrets and heartaches of childhood and adolescence. There was Robin, idealistic and clever, destined for Cambridge; Maia, the most beautiful and ambitious of the three, looking for a rich husband; and quiet Helen, living under the seemingly benevolent tyranny of her widower father, the local vicar. Adulthood separates the three girls, and Robin, abandoning ideas of university, goes to London to work amongst the poor, meeting there her first great love, the handsome but brittle Francis. Maia's ideal marriage to a wealthy man ends in tragedy and Helen, meanwhile, kept in near-imprisonment by her obsessively protective father, has her very sanity threatened. Amid political and social upheaval, these three women must find their way in a world changed for ever. What readers are saying about The Winter House : 'She writes so beautifully and nostalgically... Judith Lennox is truly a great writer ' '[Judith Lennox's] characters are marvellously drawn, and their lives draw the reader totally into the story ' ' Couldn't put it down '
Release date: April 9, 2015
Print pages: 494
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The Winter House
Father and mother were out for the day, so no-one opened the telegrams. They remained on the hall table: menacing, threatening. Yet Robin’s routine continued just as it always did. Lessons with Miss Smith in the morning, lunch and rest and then an afternoon walk in the park. By the time she went to bed at half past eight Robin had reassured herself that everything was all right. How could life go on in its usual way if anything had happened to Stevie or to Hugh?
Afterwards, she always wondered what had woken her up. It could not have been her mother’s wail of grief – the house was too big, too solid, for her cry to have reached Robin’s bedroom. But, suddenly awake, she climbed out of bed and padded silently downstairs in her nightgown. The hall was deserted and dimly lit by a single electric lamp.
‘Stevie – Hugh – both of them—’ Robin hardly recognized her mother’s voice.
‘We shall leave for the hospital at dawn, dearest.’
‘My sons – my beautiful sons!’
Robin’s fingers slid from the handle of the drawing-room door. She walked back down the hallway, into the dining-room and out through the wide French doors that led on to the terrace. She did not stop walking: her small, bare feet tramped through the snow until she reached the bottom of the garden.
Standing amongst the rhododendrons and the remains of old bonfires, she looked back at the house. The snow had stopped falling at last, and the moon was a baleful orange-yellow in a black sky. The house that Robin had known all the seven years of her life was no longer familiar. It had changed utterly, bleached by snow, outlined by bronze light. She had a primitive realization that everything had altered, that winter had pushed its way through the bricks and tiles of the building, casting a frost over those inside.
They told her that though Stevie would never return from Flanders, Hugh would come home when he was well enough. Richard and Daisy Summerhayes left immediately for the field hospital in which Hugh fought for his life, leaving Robin in the care of Miss Smith. Later, the passing of time became marked by Hugh’s slow recovery. They lurched constantly between hope and despair. The blackness of the period immediately after the telegrams; the memorial service for Steven, to Robin a muddle of flowers and hymns and tears. Nothing to do with Stevie, her bright and beloved elder brother. Optimism when Hugh took his first steps, and when he came home from hospital. A return to darkness after he suffered his breakdown. Things changed after that second homecoming: the house became tidier, because disorder frightened and disgusted Hugh. Richard Summerhayes abandoned his political ambitions, and his old aspirations for his sons were transferred to his daughter. Robin – not Steven, not Hugh – would go to Cambridge and study Classics as Richard had done. The string of visitors to the Summerhayeses’ London home – for the madrigal evenings, the poetry readings, the political debates – was curtailed, because Hugh could not bear noise. Richard bought a motor-car in an attempt to entice his son from the cocooning safety of home. Their noisy, happy life diminished, becoming careful and quiet.
Yet Hugh did not really recover. His doctor emphasized to Richard and Daisy that what their son needed above all was peace and quiet. Richard Summerhayes began to search for another job, and was eventually offered the position of Head of Classics in a boys’ school in Cambridge. He accepted the post even though it meant a reduction in salary, because he had seen for himself the silence and emptiness of the Fens.
The ploughed fields were black, featureless squares. Grey shadows daubed the dikes and droves. Frost lingered in the sheltered banks and ruts, and the sun, if it had risen that day, had vanished.
The motor-car bumped and rattled along the road. Because the countryside was so flat, Robin Summerhayes saw the house long before they reached it. Her resentment deepened as the squat yellow building enlarged. By the time her father parked the motor-car, she had to bite her lips together to stop herself speaking.
Her parents’ concern was, as always, for Hugh. Determined not to fuss him, but trying to tell whether his shattered nerves had survived the journey. Robin looked up at the house. It was a square box of a building, with four windows and a front door, like a child’s drawing. Inside, the kitchen, dining-room, drawing-room, study and lobby branched from the dark, narrow hallway. Their furniture was already in place, but boxes containing china, linen, clothes and books cluttered every surface.
‘Your bedroom, Robin,’ Daisy Summerhayes said brightly as she opened an upstairs door.
The room had, like the rest of Blackmere Farm, the cold, sad look of a house that has been empty too long. The wallpaper had faded, and none of Robin’s familiar furniture seemed to fit properly.
‘It needs a coat of paint, of course,’ added Daisy, ‘and I shall run you up some new curtains. What do you think, darling? It will be lovely, won’t it?’
She wanted to shout, It’s horrible! I hate it!, but she did not, because of poor Hugh. Mumbling gracelessly, ‘It’s all right,’ Robin ran out of the room.
Blackmere Farm had neither electricity nor town gas nor running water. The scullery shelves were lined with rows of oil lamps, and the single tap in the ceramic sink was fed from the outside well. Throwing open the back door, Robin thought savagely that in saying goodbye to London, the Summerhayes family had said goodbye to civilization.
Outside, she gazed gloomily at the garden, at the wide, overgrown lawn, and at the bedraggled flower-beds. The distant horizon was low and level, the blackness of the fields merging into clouds. Robin ran towards a thin strip of silvery grey. The long grass soaked her shoes and stockings. When she reached the river she paused, looking down through the reeds into clear, dark water. A small voice in her head suggested how lovely it would be to swim here in the summer. Robin disregarded the voice, and thought of London. She had loved the noise and bustle. This house seemed to be marooned in a great, empty desert. No – not a desert, because here everything dripped, or squelched. A marsh, then. When she looked around her, she could see neither another person, nor another building.
Yet that was not quite true. A large wooden hut stood downriver. Robin began to trudge along the bank towards it.
The roofed verandah of the hut jutted over the water, where the river had gathered in a deep circular pool, studded with reeds. Robin climbed onto the verandah. Ivy wreathed around the rails, twisting and turning along the lapped wooden planks, curtaining the window. Rubbing at the dusty glass with her sleeve, she peered inside. Then she turned the handle of the door. Rather to her surprise it opened, with a creaking and tearing of ivy tendrils. Cobwebs festooned the doorway, clinging stickily to Robin’s hair as she stepped inside. Something small and dark scuttled across the floor.
She had thought it a summerhouse, but she knew instantly that it was not. There was an iron stove in the centre of the room: Robin, kneeling in front of it, opened the rusty door and a runnel of ash trickled onto her lap. Summerhouses did not have coal stoves.
The wall behind the stove was lined with bookshelves. A fly-spotted mirror, framed with large, flat shells, hung on another wall. Robin, looking into it, had the fanciful notion that a different face might look back at her, the face of the person who had slept in the iron bed that stood against the wall, who had warmed herself with the wood-burning stove. But she saw only her own reflection – dark brown eyes, light brown hair, a grey smudge of cobweb along one cheekbone. Sitting on a corner of the bedstead, Robin pulled her jumper over her knees and propped her chin on her hands. She heard in the distance her father’s voice, and Hugh’s, and her thoughts were dragged back to that awful day in 1918. Six years ago now, but she still remembered it with perfect, awful clarity. The day they had received the telegrams. So much had grown from then: both Richard Summerhayes’s and Robin’s pacifism, and this exile. Her anger ebbed and, hearing footsteps outside, she rubbed her eyes on her sleeve.
‘Here you are, Rob.’ Hugh peered round the door. ‘I say – what a frightful hole.’
Hugh was a foot taller than Robin, his wavy hair blonder, his hazel eyes deepset in a thin, high-cheekboned, eagle-nosed face.
‘I’d like it to be mine.’
Hugh looked dubious. He glanced at the stove, the bed, the verandah.
‘This must have been built for a consumptive. She’d have lived out here all year long, poor thing.’
Robin noticed that Hugh, like herself, assumed the former occupant of the hut to be female. The mirror, perhaps.
‘It’s a winter house, isn’t it, Hugh? Not a summerhouse.’
Hugh grinned, but he looked tired and pale. ‘It should be dismantled and burnt, Robin. After all … tuberculosis …’
‘I’ll clean it. I’ll scrub every inch of it with disinfectant!’
One of the tiny muscles beside Hugh’s eye was twitching. Robin took his hand and led him back out onto the verandah.
‘Look,’ she said softly.
The world was laid out before them. Frost had fringed the reeds, making tiny pennants of every seed-head. Sun gleamed through the thinning grey clouds, and the dark expanse of water beyond the verandah reflected reeds, sun and sky like a looking-glass.
‘In the summer,’ she said, ‘we shall have a boat. We shall sail for ever. We shall lose ourselves.’
Hugh looked down at his sister and smiled.
Exiled, she collected things, arranging them in the winter house. Baskets of pale shells; jam jars bristling with long tail feathers; a snake’s shed skin, brittle and dry; a rabbit’s skull, all papery white bone. She collected people too, her curiosity, her need to know how other people passed their lives often earning her Daisy’s reprimands. It’s rude to stare, Robin. Such questions! The woman who came to clean, the man who collected withies from the river and made them into eel traps, the pedlar who, shell-shocked and one-legged, ambled from village to village selling pegs and matches, she talked to them endlessly.
And Helen and Maia. Robin met Maia Read in her first term at school, and Helen Ferguson the following summer, when she was cycling in the Fens. Maia was dark, beautiful, elegant even in her dreadful school gymslip. Sharp-witted and quietly subversive, she was not remotely interested in the politics that was Robin’s passion. Helen lived in the neighbouring hamlet of Thorpe Fen. When Robin first saw her, walking from the bus stop to her home, she was dressed in a white frock, white gloves and the sort of hat Robin vaguely remembered her mother wearing before the War. Helen said politely, ‘You must attend St Luke’s, Miss Summerhayes. It’s nearer to Blackmere, I suppose.’ Robin, wheeling her bicycle along the rutted drove, declared, ‘We don’t go to church. We’re agnostics. Religion’s only a means of keeping social order, you know,’ just as Helen, red-faced, reached a large, yellow-bricked house and pushed open a gate lettered with the words The Rectory.
Somehow, against the odds, the friendship survived and prospered. Maia and Helen were absorbed into the busy fabric of the Summerhayes household. A compensation, Robin often thought, for the awfulness of the Fens.
In the warm spring of 1928 they lounged on cushions on the verandah of the winter house, and looked forward to freedom.
‘Only one more school term,’ said Robin. Leaning against the wall she clasped her arms round her knees and chewed a stray lock of hair. ‘We’ll be grown up. No more lacrosse. No more ridiculous rules and regulations.’
‘I shall marry a rich man,’ said Maia. ‘I shall live in an enormous house with a dozen servants. My wardrobe shall be vast – Vionnet, Fortuny, Chanel …’ Maia’s light blue eyes were half-closed, her exquisite profile emphasized by the shadows and the sunlight. ‘Men shall fall in love with me all the time.’
‘They do already,’ Robin said tartly. It was disconcerting to walk through Cambridge with Maia: heads turned, delivery boys fell off their bicycles. Shading her eyes, she squinted at the water. ‘I’m going to get my bathing costume. I’m sure it’s warm enough.’
She darted through the garden, and into the farmhouse. In her bedroom, Robin threw off her clothes and pulled on her school bathing costume, black and baggy with ‘R. Summerhayes’ embroidered across its back. As she ran back across the lawn, Helen’s voice floated over to her from the verandah.
‘I’d like a little house of my own. Nothing grand. And children, of course.’
‘I shall never have children.’ Maia had unpeeled her stockings, and was letting the sun toast her bare legs. ‘I can’t bear them.’
‘Daddy says we are to let go of Mrs Lunt. She has a habit. I think Daddy would be quite glad if she took the pledge, even though it’s rather low church.’ Helen’s voice was subdued. Robin ran up the wooden steps, two at a time. ‘Daddy says I’m old enough now to run the house. After all, I’m eighteen now.’
‘But you can’t just …’ Robin, staring at her, was horrified. ‘I mean … dusting the ornaments … running bazaars and all that. You couldn’t, Helen. I couldn’t. I’d rather die.’
‘It won’t be for ever. Just until we sort ourselves out. And I quite like doing the letters and things. Daddy said he might buy me a typewriter.’
‘We mustn’t lose touch.’ Robin ducked under the wooden rail of the verandah, and stood poised for a moment above the dark, glassy water. ‘We must promise to celebrate together the important milestones of a woman’s life.’
She released her grip and dived into the water. The cold almost took her breath away, and when she opened her eyes she could see the dim green shimmering light above her. Breaking the surface of the water, she emerged into the sunlight and shook her head, sending out a crystal circlet of droplets.
Maia said, ‘We must celebrate our first jobs …’
‘I don’t plan to marry.’ Robin, treading water, tossed back her wet hair.
‘Losing our virginity, then,’ said Maia, grinning. She pulled her pinafore dress over her head, and draped it over the verandah rail.
‘Maia,’ whispered Helen, watching her. ‘You can’t—’
‘Can’t I?’ Maia unbuttoned her blouse and, folding it neatly, placed it beside her dress. She stood on the verandah, tall and long-legged, wearing only her camiknickers.
‘You do plan to lose your virginity, don’t you, Robin?’
Helen looked away, pink and embarrassed. Robin began to swim backstroke across the pond.
‘I expect so. If I can find a man who won’t expect me to wash his shirts and sew on his buttons just because he’s sweet on me.’
Maia’s dive was clean and curving, hardly breaking the surface of the water. She swam towards Robin. ‘I don’t think any man would expect that of you, Robin, darling.’ She flicked the loose button that dangled from the shoulder of Robin’s complicated bathing garment.
‘Well then. Losing our virginity. And finding our first job. What else?’
‘Travelling abroad,’ said Helen, from the verandah. ‘I’d love to travel. I’ve never been further than Cambridge.’
Robin felt a rush of excitement mixed with frustration. The world waited for her, and yet she had to endure years more Latin and Greek.
‘What about you, Robin? If you don’t mean to marry?’
‘Girton, I suppose.’ When her father had told her that she had passed the scholarship examination, she had felt gloomy rather than elated. Robin began to swim around the perimeter of the pond. Fleeting images tumbled through her mind: the squalid cottages of the agricultural workers in the Fens; the triumphal wireless reports at the end of the General Strike; the awareness, every time she walked through Cambridge, of the many girls younger than she who worked at dreary jobs, for low wages, for long hours. Anger still often burned in her along with excitement and frustration.
‘Robin means to change the world, don’t you, Robin?’
Maia’s voice was sarcastic. But Robin, pausing beneath the verandah, only shrugged and looked up.
‘Come in, won’t you, Helen? I’ll teach you to swim.’
Helen shook her head. Framed by golden ringlets and a wide-brimmed straw hat, her expression mingled apprehension and longing.
‘I might paddle, though.’ She darted into the winter house, and came out a few minutes later, bare-footed. Cautiously, her frothy white skirts and petticoats held out of the way, Helen perched on the edge of the verandah, and dipped her feet into the water. She gasped.
‘It’s so cold! How do you bear it?’
Hugh was walking across the lawn towards them. Robin waved and called out. Helen, blushing, drew her toes out of the water and pulled down her skirt, but Maia, her wet camisole clinging to the slender outline of her body, swam over to him and smiled.
‘Are you coming in, darling Hugh?’
He grinned, looking down at her. ‘Certainly not. You are quite insane. It’s only April – you will turn to ice.’
His voice drifted over to Robin, duck-diving into the deepest part of the pond. She took a deep breath and plunged again, down through water and weeds, until her cold, numbed fingers touched something half-buried in the sandy bottom.
Soaring upwards, she broke free of the water, and took a great gulp of air. Her fingers had gone white, her nails blue, but in the palm of her hand lay a freshwater mussel, just like the ones round the mirror in the winter house.
She heard Hugh say, ‘I’ll drive you home, shall I, Helen? And Maia – you’ll stay to dinner, won’t you?’
Later, in Daisy’s bedroom, Robin pulled off her skirt and blouse and dropped them to the floor. The new frock slid over her head, dark brown velvet, the same colour as her eyes. She glanced reluctantly in the mirror. The dress was beautiful: drop-waisted, knee-length, trimmed at the neck and sleeves with cream-coloured lace.
‘Don’t you like it?’
‘It’s lovely.’ Robin’s expression was despairing. ‘It’s not the dress – it’s me. I wish I was tall, like Maia – or I had a bosom, like Helen. Look at me. Short and skinny, with mousy hair.’
Daisy had a mouthful of pins. Kneeling on the floor, she began to turn up the hem.
‘Have I grown, d’you think?’
Daisy shook her head. Robin sighed. Daisy mumbled, ‘When you leave school, you can wear heels.’
There was the sound of a motor-car drawing up outside. Robin pulled aside the curtain, and watched Hugh limp from the car to the house, several of the weekend’s house-guests following him.
‘Hugh has told Richard that he’d like to do some private tutoring.’
‘Oh …’ Robin, smiling broadly, hugged Daisy.
Daisy returned to the pins. ‘If only he could meet a nice girl.’
‘I think he should marry Helen. They get on awfully well. And Helen’s only interested in getting married and having babies.’
‘You say that, my dear Robin, as though marriage and motherhood were inappropriate ambitions for a woman.’
‘Marriage,’ said Robin, contemptuously. ‘Shopping and sewing and cooking. Losing your independence. Having your money doled out to you by your husband, as though you were a child or a servant.’
Her face reddened as she pulled the dress off over her head. Even her father, a Fabian Socialist and a staunch supporter of women’s rights, gave Daisy a sum of money each week with which to run the household, and a monthly allowance to clothe herself. Daisy’s back was turned; Robin was guiltily aware of tactlessness.
There were ten for dinner that night: the four Summerhayeses; Maia; the artist Merlin Sedburgh; Hugh’s old schoolfriend, Philip Shaw; Ted and Mary Warburton, from the Cambridge Social Democratic Federation; and Persia Mortimer, who had, a long time ago, been Daisy’s bridesmaid. Persia dripped beads and Indian scarves and startling head-dresses. Merlin (Robin could not remember not knowing Merlin) loathed Persia, and, being Merlin, did not trouble to hide it. It amused Robin that Persia always remained blithely ignorant of his dislike.
‘Landscapes,’ said Persia, over pudding, ‘I hear you’ve turned to landscapes, Merlin darling.’
Merlin grunted and stared at Maia. He had been staring at Maia all evening.
‘Landscape permits such variety, don’t you agree? And one cannot exploit a landscape.’
Merlin, lighting a cigarette, blinked. He was a large man, his greying dark hair shaggily cut, his jackets often through at the elbows. Daisy patched his clothes, and fed him. Daisy was the only person he was never rude to.
‘Exploit?’ repeated Merlin, turning to Persia.
‘Well, it’s a kind of prostitution, isn’t it?’ Persia removed her trailing sleeve from the trifle.
The corners of Richard Summerhayes’s mouth twitched. ‘Perhaps Persia is referring to your latest exhibition, Merlin.’
Richard, Daisy and Robin had travelled to London to view Merlin’s new work. The exhibition had been called ‘Nudes in an Attic’, and had featured the same model, in a variety of poses, against the background of Merlin’s large but gloomy attic.
‘Actually,’ said Persia, ‘I meant anything figurative. Portraits … family groups … nudes, of course. They are all intrusive. They all trespass upon the soul. Which is why I prefer my little abstracts.’
Persia made huge fabric collages, immensely popular with certain of the Bloomsbury set.
Maia said, ‘So if I were to model for Merlin, for instance … then you would consider that I was prostituting myself?’
Persia touched Maia’s hand. ‘Metaphorically, darling, yes.’
‘But if I chose to …’
‘Aha!’ interrupted Richard gleefully. ‘Good point, Maia. Free will …’
‘It would rather depend, don’t you think, Richard, on whether Mr Sedburgh were to pay Miss Read for her services as a model.’
‘The exchange of labour for money dignifies the relationship, of course, Ted.’
‘Pay her, and she isn’t a bloody tart, you mean?’
‘Mr Sedburgh!’ Philip Shaw, Hugh’s friend, was shocked. ‘There are ladies present!’
He was referring, Robin realized, to Maia. Maia, who, in her white blouse and navy skirt, looked serene, untouchable, pure.
‘Coffee,’ said Daisy firmly, and swept the pudding things away.
They smoked and drank coffee in the drawing-room. Richard Summerhayes disapproved of the customary separation of the sexes after dinner. There weren’t enough armchairs to go round, so Philip Shaw crouched adoringly at Maia’s feet, and Robin perched on the windowsill.
‘Donald is arranging this year’s programme, Richard,’ said Ted Warburton. ‘What date can he pencil you in to introduce the meeting?’
Richard Summerhayes frowned. ‘Oh – autumn, preferably, Ted. Examinations seem to consume so much of the summer.’
‘And the topic?’
‘The League of Nations, perhaps … or … let me see … the consequences of the Russian Revolution.’
Robin touched her father’s sleeve. ‘The Russian Revolution, please, Pa.’ She had a dim memory of the muted celebrations in the Summerhayes household at the Socialist Revolution of 1917. Muted, because Hugh had just sailed with his battalion for France.
‘And I believe that Mary has the date of the jumble sale.’
‘The tenth of June, Daisy.’
‘So soon? We shall have to be busy, won’t we, Robin?’
‘Perhaps Miss Summerhayes has better things to do,’ said Ted Warburton archly. ‘A young man …?’
Robin scowled. Richard Summerhayes said, ‘Robin is to start at Girton College this October, Ted. She will read Classics.’ The pride in Richard’s voice was clearly audible. Robin’s scowl deepened, and she moved out of earshot.
Daisy, following her, whispered, ‘I know Ted teases, Robin, but—’
‘It’s not that. It’s just that …’ The more she thought about it, the more she loathed the prospect of studying Classics for the next three years. She imagined Girton College as much like her school: hidebound, claustrophobic, a hotbed of intense friendships and equally overheated jealousies and resentments.
But she couldn’t possibly voice the true cause of her sudden ill-humour. Instead, Robin muttered, ‘It’s always the same. The men go on the committees and make the speeches, and the women run the jumble sales and make the tea!’
‘I should loathe public speaking, Robin dear,’ said Daisy gently. ‘And your father really hasn’t time to go around collecting sackfuls of awful holey jumpers.’
‘You’ve only time because you haven’t a career. If you had a job, like Pa, then you wouldn’t have time.’
‘Then it’s as well that I don’t,’ answered Daisy lightly. ‘If we didn’t hold jumble sales and suppers, then we couldn’t raise the funds to pay for the hall. And then no-one would be able to speak.’
Daisy’s logic was, as usual, unanswerable. Robin slammed delicate bone china cups onto a tray and stomped off into the kitchen. Then she slipped out of the scullery and ran across the moonlit lawn, towards the winter house.
Standing on the verandah, her elbows resting on the balcony, her temper began to subside. Moonlight washed the river and the pond in which they had swum that afternoon and painted the distant Fens with silver. The sound of singing issued from the open drawing-room window: Since first I saw your face, I vowed, to honour and renown you …
She heard footsteps, and turned her head to see Merlin striding across the lawn towards her. The red tip of his cigarette glowed in the darkness.
‘I had to get away from that woman. And I never could tolerate madrigals. I hope you don’t mind me interrupting your adolescent broodings, Robin.’
She giggled. He stood beside her on the verandah, their elbows touching.
She had never smoked before, but she took one, hoping to make an impression of casual sophistication. Merlin lit it for her from the tip of his own; Robin inhaled, and choked.
‘First one? Chuck it in the river if you don’t want it.’
The song had altered. Maia was singing the madrigal that Richard had arranged for her as a solo: ‘The Silver Swan’, a glacial and unearthly sound, trailed through the chill night air.
Robin, catching a glimpse of Merlin’s face, said crossly, ‘I suppose you’re in love with her too!’
He looked down at her. ‘Not at all. She is made entirely of ice. Listen to her. It’s inhuman. Passionless.’
There was a silence as they listened to the second verse of the song. Then he added, ‘I’d like to paint Maia, of course. But I’d rather go to bed with you.’
Robin gave an embarrassed little gasp. Merlin said, amused, ‘I won’t, of course. I’ve been in love with Daisy for years, after all, and it would seem rather incestuous. And besides, you probably think of me as a repulsive old uncle.’
She giggled again, and immediately wanted to kick herself for sounding like a schoolgirl. Then she shook her head.
‘No? Ah well—’
He bent his head and kissed her. His lips were dry and hard, and his fingers threaded through her short, fine hair. Then he let her go.
‘Another first? My, my, little Robin.’ He studied her face. ‘Do forgive me. Too much to drink. If it’s any consolation, there will be others and better. I rather envy them.’
A sailor returning from his ship in Liverpool to his mother in Trumpington struck up a conversation with Maia as she travelled home by train one Sunday after visiting Robin. Mutely, she played the game she always played: one point if he spoke to her, two if he offered to carry her schoolbag, three if he bought her a cup of tea, and a resounding five if he asked her to the pictures. Ten for a kiss, and she always laughed when she thought what she should score for a proposal: her suitor on his knees in the grubby third class carriage – a triumph, surely, for any girl on a short train journey.
She’d never had a proposal; had never, in fact, scored more than two. Not because they hadn’t offered, but because Maia always refused the cups of tea, the invitations to the pictures, the rendezvous in the park. In a third class carriage, Maia didn’t meet the sort of man she wanted to meet.
She walked from the station to her home in Hills Road. She could hear her parents’ raised voices as she fitted the key in the lock. The tenor of their voices – sometimes hysterical, sometimes sullen – once had the power to make her stomach squeeze, to make her hide in bed, her pillow over her head, her fingers in her ears. But you got used to anything in time.
Mr and Mrs Read were in the drawing-room. The door was open, and they must have seen her walk past, but they made no acknowledgement. Angry words followed Maia as she climbed the stairs. You don’t listen to a word I say … it’s like talking to a brick wall … you don’t care a fig for my happiness … Clichéd accusations: the quarrel was well under way, then, its specific cause long past. There remained only the insults, the tears, the sulks. It would be forgotten by dinner-time.
Maia closed her bedroom door behind her. As she took her sewing box from the cupboard she tried to ignore
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