'Who says we're a dysfunctional family?' Margot looked around the dinner table. 'We all came back for the trial, didn't we?'
No one looked up. Heads bowed, completely absorbed in the contents of their plates, they all let the silence lengthen.
'I'm still not sure that was such a good idea.' Aunt Emmeline met her eyes briefly in the dead-level stare that had quelled a thousand boisterous schoolgirls. 'Everyone gathering, that is. It could look ... valedictory.'
'Not at all. Showing solidarity, that's what it is.' The words seemed to be wrenched from Cousin Henry, almost against his will. He appeared to regret them immediately, darting a quick guilty look at Aunt Millicent.
But Millicent Morton was serenely oblivious. She neatly cut a small square from her slice of roast beef and piled it on the side of her plate alongside all the other neat squares of beef. Occasionally, very occasionally, she actually ate one. But not very often and not very many. No one might have spoken; no one else might have been sitting at the table with her. A book waited, face down, beside her plate and her hand hovered over it sporadically before she seemed to recall the proprieties and withdrew it. Her gaze lingered wistfully on the print of the back cover which detailed the delights awaitingwithin. It was clear that all she wanted to do was to escape with her book and continue reading.
Henry had incautiously neglected to return his attention to his plate immediately. Margot caught his eye and lifted her eyebrows at him.
He lifted his shoulders in reply; in fuller explanation, he also lifted his hands briefly, palms upward, before returning his full attention to his plate. The moment of communication was over.
Margot glanced around the table again. If any of them had noticed the byplay, they were not revealing it. Never had a dinner received such absorbed attention, yet Margot would have been prepared to bet that no one could say what they had been eating if the plates were to be suddenly whipped away from them. No compliments to the chef on this one.
The only sounds were the clink of cutlery against china and the jangle of Aunt Christabel's charm bracelet as she sawed at what must have been a tough corner of beef. What would they do when they had finished their meal and had no escape from facing each other and trying to make conversation?
'If you're not going to eat that - ' Uncle Wilfred had finished and was spurred to movement. He leaned over and speared a forkful of neglected meat from his wife's plate. 'Then I'll eat it!'
'Why not?' Aunt Emmeline muttered. 'You usually do.'
Uncle Wilfred was the one who had changed most during the traumatic eighteen months since Margot had last seen him. The buttons of his shirt strained at the buttonholes and a thick rim of flesh bulged above his collar; he must have put on at least thirty pounds. If he'd been eating Aunt Millicent's meals as well as his own, no wonder.
The strain showed on all of them in different ways, but the most obvious was the paler skins and the tiny lines around eyes and mouths, surely more wrinklesthan would have accrued in a normal eighteen-month period. There was also a common tendency to turn a head abruptly and appear to be listening for something.
Yet it hadn't been eighteen months, Margot reminded herself, that was just the length of time she had been away. Not so terribly long, really, and yet so much had happened to all of them in that length of time - herself included. If she had returned a year ago, happy and flourishing herself, she would have found everything bright and pleasant and just the way she always remembered it ... remembered them. It was less than a year ago that the abyss had opened up at their feet.
Their world had changed overnight, plunging them into a nightmare that would never really end. Shock waves had engulfed them all, the undertow had dragged them down, choking, gasping and bewildered, into depths they could never have imagined. The unthinkable, the unbelievable, the irrevocable, had happened to them, had invaded their private lives, their home. Even after the trial, after the verdict - whatever it might be - life would never be the same again.
That was the truth of murder.
The big mahogany dining-table had been rearranged to mask the missing places. It was smaller than usual at a family reunion; one, or possibly two, of the leaves had not been used. The seating was wider spaced. Even so, it still seemed too large. Of course, there were still a few more members of the family to come.
'Where's Richard?' Margot asked softly. 'I thought I'd have seen him before this.'
'Richard is staying in town, holding the fort at the office. Uncle Wilfred is too ... distracted ... to handle everything right now - he's concentrating on the defence while Richard tends to the business.'
'Good old Richard,' Margot said, 'a tower of strength, as usual.' Was it a comfort to Wilfred and Millicent thattheir eldest child had turned out so well, or did it simply point up their failure with his siblings?
'He's collecting Justin and Fenella at Heathrow right now,' Henry said. 'They'll be along soon.'
'Shouldn't they be here by now?' Christa's charm bracelet tinkled as she turned it, seeking the tiny fob watch which always seemed to get lost among the mementoes of past triumphs. 'Do you think their plane was late ... or something?'
A ripple of unease swept over them. Nothing could be trusted any more, nothing could be depended upon.
'Steady on,' Henry said. 'If the plane had crashed, we'd have heard about it by now.' He dabbed abstractedly at one corner of his mouth with his napkin and pushed back his chair. 'Perhaps we should check the half-hour news bulletin on the radio. There might be a power failure at Heathrow ... or something.'
Christa's bracelet jangled an alarm as she tugged at the scarf around her neck, then loosened it, then took it off completely and retied it. Then she seemed at a loss as to what to do next. There was another jangle from her bracelet as she twisted it to consult her watch charm again.
Emmeline's lips tightened. Wilfred continued to eat from his wife's plate. Millicent did not appear to notice; her hand rested lightly on her book and she seemed to be reading, with great interest, the name and address of the publisher.
'It's all right, there's nothing on the news.' Nanny Helston had obviously been monitoring from the serving hatch. She came into the room and began collecting empty plates briskly. 'Stay where you are. It's raspberry fool for pudding.'
'Good, good,' Wilfred responded heartily. Even the others relaxed a bit. Raspberry fool had always been a favourite and there'd be ratafia biscuits with it, too. Once that would have been taken as surety that God was in His heaven and all was right with the world.Now it simply meant that even Nanny was striving desperately to try to make the world seem normal.
Especially Nanny, who must be fighting her own demons. She had brought up all of the younger members of the family, sliding effortlessly from position to position when they no longer needed a nanny, but Aunt Milly was frantic for a housekeeper. Without a family of her own, Nanny was content to remain in her comfortable quarters, with her own television, car and the additional help of an occasional cook and au pair.
'No au pair in residence?' Margot asked. That was another of the missing faces around the table. The others didn't bear thinking about.
'Not at the moment,' Nanny said. 'We had a Swiss girl, but she was getting a bit homesick. With everything the way it is, we thought it best to let her go back to her family.'
'Encouraged her, in fact,' Henry said.
'We felt it best not to have strangers around at a time like this,' Emmeline said. 'Pleasant though she was.'
'Chink in the armour,' Wilfred grunted. 'Weak link in the chain. Media wave their chequebooks and someone like that - ' He folded his jaws over the last morsel from Milly's plate and chewed savagely.
'We did have that problem ... before.' Emmeline's gaze strayed to her sister, but Milly gave no indication of having heard a word. 'It was quite ... awkward.'
'Not laying ourselves open to that again,' Wilfred said.
Emmeline shook her head forcefully. 'No, it simply wouldn't do.'
'They say there's no such thing as bad publicity, so long as they spell your name right.' Christa lifted her head and stared into Margot's eyes. 'That isn't true. Every damned bloody lie they write is put into a file with your name on it somewhere - and every time someone pulls out that file to research you, all the misquotations, the misunderstandings - the lies - arethere for everyone to see and repeat. All those lies will follow you around for the rest of your life, appearing in every biographical note, every interview, until they finally show up in your obituary - ' She broke off in consternation, casting a guilty look at her sister.
Aunt Millicent still hadn't taken in one word anyone had said. She smiled vaguely as Nanny returned with the tray of desserts and began setting them out around the table.
'Thanks, Nan.' Margot flashed her a quick smile and, in return, felt a brief gentle tug at a lock of hair at the back of her head. That had always been Nanny's way of expressing affection ... or warning.
Everyone had gone silent again. When Margot closed her eyes, she could still hear the whine of the jets and feel the vibration of the plane. Jet-lagged and exhausted, she had arrived only a short time ago and had not even unpacked yet. No! Don't think about unpacking!
Wildly, she cast about for distraction, for a safe subject to talk about. What subject was safe in a world gone mad?
'Where's Tikki?' The cat was the only one she felt able to ask about. All other absences were too poignant.
'That damned beast!' Uncle Wilfred was roused to fury.
Henry shot her a quick Now you've done it! look and buried himself in his raspberry fool.
'Actually, dear,' Nan said delicately, 'I'm afraid Tikki doesn't live here any more.'
'No,' Wilfred snorted. 'He only drops in now and again for a meal.'
'That's how dysfunctional we are,' Henry muttered to Margot. 'Even the cat walked out on us.'
'Tickety-boo?' Even as she said it, Margot heard how ridiculous she sounded. As though there might be another cat with a similar name they could be talking about. She had a vague fond memory of a rollicking little Abyssinian kitten with a registered name and pedigreelonger than it was. The kitten had adored them all and been adored in return.
'Gone,' Wilfred confirmed grimly. 'Jumped ship. Deserted us. Buggered off, the little bugger!'
'It wasn't his fault!' Aunt Milly suddenly flared into life. 'When Olive Stacey went on that all-fish diet, poor Tikki was just tempted beyond his strength!'
'The diet only lasted two weeks,' Uncle Wilfred snarled. 'And Olive gave up after eight days - but the cat hasn't come back yet. Ungrateful little brute!'
'Poor Olive is terribly embarrassed about it,' Milly explained to Margot. 'At first, she kept bringing him back. She must have carried him home a dozen times but, as soon as his paws hit the carpet, he was off and back at her house before she got there. Finally, it seemed better to let him stay with her, since she was willing. At least we knew where he was and that he was safe and well.'
Uncle Wilfred snorted again.
'You can't tie a cat down,' Aunt Milly insisted. 'A cat is a free spirit.'
'Free?' Wilfred's voice rose to a muted roar. 'I paid five hundred pounds for that miserable beast - and then he walked out on us!'
Clearly an animal with no sense of fiscal responsibility. For a moment, everything was the way it used to be and Margot relaxed. Dear Fred and Milly squabbling more or less amiably over something that was fairly important but not exactly world-shattering, locked in an argument neither of them could win, but determined to keep it going, drawing in other members of the family for a good old-fashioned free-for-all.
'Olive isn't getting the registration papers, though,' Wilfred continued, with a trace of malice. 'She'll never be able to show him.'
'I still think that's rather petty.' Emmeline entered the fray.
'She wouldn't want to show him - and he wouldn'twant to be shown!' Milly threw back her head and glared at Wilfred. 'He's a pet!'
'Too bad he's not our pet. We paid for him!' Uncle Wilfred was quivering with indignation. 'At least, I did!'
'Fred ... Milly ...' As usual, Nan tried to be peacemaker. 'It's probably just a passing phase. Tikki will come back - '
'Yes, when he smells something cooking that he fancies.' Wilfred would not be placated. 'He'll stroll in, eat everything you're fool enough to give him - then turn around and go back to Olive again. He always does.'
'Not always,' Milly corrected. 'Sometimes he stays around for several hours. He has a little nap and visits everyone.'
'How kind of him! How condescending! Just what I bargained for when I bought him. A visiting cat! A two-timing little - '
A bell rang in the distance. There was an abrupt silence. Everyone froze, then Wilfred slowly deflated. Aunt Milly looked around blankly, the animation died out of her face, the vague sweet smile was back. She stretched a hand towards her book and, this time, picked it up, clasping it to her like a shield.
Christa's bracelet jangled as she reached for her wine glass and drained it. Henry looked at Margot.
The bell sounded again. It was a handbell, rung expertly as by a town crier, managing to give out a sound that was both plaintive and imperative. It was going to keep on ringing until someone answered.
'You haven't seen Lynette yet, have you?' Henry asked.
THE CAT NEXT DOOR. Copyright © 2001 by Marian Babson.