Authors: Deborah Crombie
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Toby reached Hazel’s back door first and let himself in, as at home here as he was in his own flat. Gemma, trailing, entered the kitchen to find Hazel’s husband, Tim, stirring something on the cooker, and the children chanting, “Chocolate, chocolate,” like little demons. Hazel referred to them as Night and Day, for blue-eyed Toby’s fair hair was straight, and Holly had inherited her mother’s curls, along with her father’s dark hair and eyes.
A clinical psychologist, Hazel had taken leave from her practice to care for her small daughter, and had soon insisted on taking Toby as well—on the grounds that two were much easier to entertain than one. She charged Gemma the going rate for child-minding—though Gemma suspected this had more to do with salving her pride than Hazel’s financial gain—and never seemed fazed by the demands of the boisterous three-year-olds.
“Fancy a milky drink while we watch the video, Gemma?” Tim flashed her a welcoming smile, just visible through his dark beard.
Giving her husband an affectionate pat as she passed, Hazel said, “I think Gemma and I will join you in a bit, love. We’ve a weekend’s worth of gossip to catch up on.” She moved efficiently about the kitchen, fetching mugs, spoons, and the Cadbury tin.
After removing a broken crayon and a naked baby doll, Gemma sank into her usual chair at the kitchen table. It seemed impossible
not to relax in this room—Gemma had often told Hazel that its essence should be bottled and sold as a sedative. She looked about her, noting the details, deliberately letting their familiarity calm her. Colorful cookery books vied with Hazel’s knitting wool for space on the worktops, a basket filled with toys and picture books stood next to the Aga, and the braided rug on the floor invited games of make-believe beneath the table. Even the sponged peach walls and dusty-green cabinets added comforting warmth.
“I was going to offer you coffee and fresh strudel,” Hazel said to Gemma when she’d dispatched Tim into the sitting room with a tray, children in tow. “But let’s open that bottle of Riesling I’ve been saving for you instead. You look as though you could do with a medicinal drink.”
“No, coffee’s fine. It would be a shame to waste the wine on me tonight. I don’t feel very festive.” Then, afraid she’d sounded ungrateful, Gemma made an effort to smile and added, “And I’d hate to miss your strudel.”
Hazel gave her a considering look, her round face grave, but said only, “The carbohydrate will make you feel better.” In a few moments she’d settled opposite Gemma with the filter pot and a warm pan of apple strudel. She poured coffee and served generous portions of pastry onto two plates, pushing Gemma’s across the well-scrubbed pine table. “Thank God for frozen puff pastry,” she said as she took a test nibble, then, satisfied, she fixed all her attention on Gemma. “All right, tell.”
Gemma shrugged, shook her head, picked at her strudel, then put her fork down. “He went to see his ex-wife today. Dr. Victoria Kincaid McClellan, he said her name is now. After twelve years of absolutely F-all, she rings him up and he shot off to her like a bloody homing pigeon, can you believe it?
“She has some case she wants him to look into, and he agreed to that, too. Apparently, her husband has run off with a graduate student, and instead of saying serves her right, he feels sorry for her.” Pausing, she sipped at her coffee and winced as it scalded her mouth.
“Do I take it he told you about this beforehand?” asked Hazel, brows lifting. “That he intended seeing her?”
“Well, he couldn’t very well help it, could he? I was there when she rang.” Reluctantly, Gemma added, “Although … I suppose he did ask me to go with him.”
“You suppose?” Hazel asked, amused. “And I suppose you climbed on your high horse and refused?”
“I’d promised Toby we’d visit Mum and Dad today. You know how they look forward to our coming.” It sounded a weak excuse to Gemma even as she said it—she could have easily postponed the visit a week.
Hazel didn’t offer any encouragement. “So who are you really angry with, him or her?”
“Her, of course,” said Gemma, incensed. “Of all the nerve, after the way she treated him.” She raised her cup to her lips again, more gingerly this time, then stopped as she saw Hazel’s expression. “Oh, all right. I’m bloody furious with him, if you want to know. He was such
about it. He said I didn’t know anything, and he more or less told me to mind my own business.”
Hazel took a bite of strudel and chewed it. “Well, what
you know about their marriage?”
Gemma shrugged and went back to flaking off bits of strudel with her fork. “Just that she left him without a word.”
“Has he said why?”
it was because he worked too much and didn’t pay her enough attention,” Gemma admitted grudgingly.
“So if he’s not blaming her—what’s her name? Victoria?—then why are you? Surely you don’t wish she hadn’t left him?” Hazel grinned impishly. “Then you might have some real competition.”
“No, of course I don’t wish that.” Gemma pushed her coffee cup away. “Can we open that wine after all?” She watched as Hazel went to the fridge and retrieved the bottle.
“What’s so complicated about it?” Hazel asked as she brought the bottle and two glasses to the table. “Why do you feel threatened by his relationship with Victoria?”
“Vic. He always calls her Vic.”
“I don’t feel threatened,” Gemma protested. “And I’m not jealous. I don’t go about thinking he’s going to chat up every woman he
meets.” She accepted the glass Hazel filled and handed to her. “It’s just that… I don’t know where he stands with her.”
“Why don’t you ask him how he feels? Tell him that the situation makes you uncomfortable.”
“How can I?” Gemma choked on the wine she’d been sipping and coughed until her eyes teared. When she could speak again, she added, “I’m the one who insisted we not set those kinds of limits on each other, because I didn’t want to feel suffocated. And how could I possibly say anything after he was so bloody about it?”
“Has it occurred to you that he might have been reticent about his visit because he was worried about
reaction?” asked Hazel. “And I gather you certainly lived up to expectations.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Gemma said disgustedly. “I’d been stewing all weekend, and tonight I waded into it at the first opportunity. Sometimes I think I should have been born with my foot in my mouth.” She shook her head. “So what do I do now?”
“Grovel?” suggested Hazel kindly. “Look, love.” She leaned towards Gemma, elbows on the table. “Just for once, forget your dreadful ex-husband; ignore all those little red flags that pop up at the mere suggestion of setting parameters. One of the reasons you and Duncan work so well together is that you communicate.” She jabbed her finger at Gemma for emphasis. “Why not extend the same honesty to your personal life? You’ve been tiptoeing round this ‘we don’t make demands on our relationship’ crap for how long now—since November? That was all very well in the beginning, but relationships are about demands, and obligation, and commitment. If this one is to continue, one of you is going to have to step up to the net.”
The storm had passed through, leaving the air cool and cleansed. Vic tightened the belt on her dressing gown and stepped from the terrace into the dark garden so that she had an unobstructed view of the stars. She’d never managed to learn the constellations, and as she looked up she felt a sudden longing to put names to the clusters, to match them to the sticklike drawings she’d seen as a child. Perhaps she’d buy Kit one of those glow-in-the-dark sets she’d seen at the bookshop in Cambridge, and they could learn them together.
Poor Kit, she thought with a sigh. Since Ian’s disappearance, her parents had taken it upon themselves to fill the gap in Kit’s life, and had succeeded in giving his hostility a new target. The more he resisted, the harder they pushed, and Vic was finding the contest more and more difficult to referee. Today they’d met him off the King’s Cross train, determined to take him to an exhibition at the British Museum, while Kit had been equally determined to cajole them into visiting the Piccadilly Circus video arcades.
He’d come home sullen and disappointed, of course. Vic had known his wishes wouldn’t stand a chance against her mother’s agenda, but she’d made him go because she hadn’t been ready for him to meet Duncan. Not yet, not until she was sure about him, sure he hadn’t changed in the things that counted.
Turning, she looked to the north, where Nathan’s cottage stood out of sight just round the bend in the road. She’d meant to ring him, perhaps even to slip away for a glass of wine and a half-hour’s visit before the fire in his sitting room. But Kit had needed her attention, and her guilt had dictated she spend the evening with him in front of the telly, watching some awful action film he’d begged to see.
Now it was too late to ring anyone, but she felt restless, unable to settle. She ought to be in bed, but she knew she’d only lie awake, wide-eyed, replaying the afternoon’s conversation with Duncan in her head. Did she say too much? Did she say enough? Did he take her seriously, or was he merely humoring her?
She closed her eyes for a moment, letting herself drift in the dark, then turned and let herself quietly back into the house. There must be something she’d missed, something conclusive that she could show him. Making her way by touch down the dim corridor, she slipped into her office and stood staring at the clutter of papers illuminated by her desk lamp. She would simply start again, from the beginning.
Oh, how I wish you were here. It’s everything we dreamed of, yet in some ways nothing like we imagined. Newnham isn’t the least bit cold and forbidding, its red brick and white trim are charming, and I’ve been given the loveliest set of rooms, on the corner, overlooking the gardens. You’ll have to think of me here, once I’ve hung my prints and put my bits and pieces about, curled in my chair in front of the gas fire, reading, reading, reading … I met my Director of Studies today, Dr. Barrett, and I think we’ll get on famously. The trouble is going to be in choosing which lectures to attend and which papers I’ll do this term. I feel like the proverbial child in the candy store, overwhelmed by bounty
So far the other girls seem nice enough, if a bit standoffish. Daphne, the tall redhead across the hall, seems the best prospect for striking up a real friendship, as she’s from some village in Kent the size of your thumb. That gives us at least one thing in common
Last night I went to Evensong at King’s for the first time. Oh, Mummy, it was incredible. The voices soared, and for a little while I soared with them, imagining myself floating above Cambridge in the clear night, held only by a silver tether of sound. I sat next to a Trinity boy, very serious, who invited me to a poetry reading on Thursday in his rooms. So you see, I already have a social engagement, and you needn’t have worried about me
If the weather’s fine on Sunday I mean to walk to Grantchester along the river path. I’ll pretend I’m Virginia Woolf going to visit Rupert Brooke. We’ll have tea in the garden at the Old Vicarage and discuss important things: poetry and philosophy and life
Darling Mother, I’m sure I haven’t thanked you properly. You made me work when I felt tired or cranky; you encouraged me when I couldn’t see past some trivial setback; you built me up when I lost faith in myself. If it weren’t for your vision and determination I’d probably be standing behind the chemist’s counter today, dispensing cough syrup and milk of magnesia, instead of here, in this most glorious of places. I’ll write in a day or two and give you my schedule. I want to share this with you
Your loving… Lydia
My restless blood now lies a-quiver,
Knowing that always, exquisitely,
This April twilight on the river
Stirs anguish in the heart of me.
from “Blue Evening”
Kincaid had kept his word to Vic, ringing his friend, Chief Inspector Alec Byrne, first thing Monday morning, but it wasn’t until midday Wednesday that he found the time to go to Cambridge. Having decided he’d put enough wear and tear on the Midget for one week, he took the train, stretching his legs out in the empty compartment and dozing between stations. A little more than an hour after leaving King’s Cross, he paid off a taxi in front of the cinder-block building on Parkside Road that housed the Cambridge police.
A blonde constable with traffic-stopping legs escorted him to Byrne’s office, ushering him in with a smile and the merest suggestion of a wink.
“Watch out for our Mandy,” Byrne said with a grin as the door closed. He stood and came round his desk. “She’s been through every man in the department once, and now she’s starting on the second round.”
“I’ll exercise proper caution,” Kincaid assured him. “It’s good to see you, Alec. They seem to be treating you well, if the accommodations
are anything to go by.” He raised an eyebrow at the furniture and carpeting, a definite step up from Scotland Yard standard issue.
“I can’t complain. Executive loo and three squares a day.”
Something nagged at Kincaid, and after a moment he realized what it was. Alec Byrne had quit smoking. His desk no longer held ashtrays, and the hand he’d held out for Kincaid to shake was scrubbed pink, only the nails of his thumb and forefinger still showing faint yellow stains. When they’d been fledgling detective constables together, his friend had seldom been seen without a cigarette adhering to his lip or dangling from his fingers. Kincaid had always found it odd, as Byrne was a most fastidious man in other ways.