Felicity Mainwaring sat before her dressing-table staring at herself critically in the looking-glass. She was forty-five years old and looked fifty. Her scrupulous dieting and rigorous exercise routines ensured that there was not a single extra ounce of weight on her body but where once she had been merely thin she now looked scrawny. Exercise may keep the muscles firm but it doesn’t prevent lines from forming or preserve the youth and elasticity of the skin. After the shock of her husband’s death from cancer a year ago, she had begun to look her age and dyeing her hair to hide the threads of grey merely served to make her look harder than ever. Unsparing though she was of herself, Felicity couldn’t see that the matt black hair aged her and that it was no longer in keeping with her skin tone. She rather liked it and, turning her head slightly, she approved the severe geometric cut that she had stuck to since Mary Quant first made it famous in the sixties. Mark had always admired it; that and the fact that she had never become flabby and careless of her appearance as her friends had. Her success here was partly to do with their decision to remain childless which meant that there was plenty of time and money to be spent on her appearance. Even when Mark’s cancer had been diagnosed and he had died shortly afterwards, she had never regretted that decision. It was possible that children might have been a comfort but it was more likely that they would have required consolation themselves and Felicity preferred to look after number one.
It had been a cataclysmic shock. Mark had hardly ever been ill. And he was doing so well in his career. Ever since he had passed out from Britannia Royal Naval College, he had gone from strength to strength within the submarine service. Great things were promised him: he was, in naval parlance, ‘a flyer’. He had shot ahead of all his oppos such as Tom Wivenhoe, George Lampeter and Mark Webster, and his eyes were firmly fixed on Flag Officer rank and more. So were Felicity’s. She could see herself as Lady Mainwaring and had imagined, with enormous pleasure, rubbing Cass Wivenhoe’s nose in the dirt. And now it was all over.
Felicity raised her chin, narrowed her eyes and examined her neck. It was there that ageing showed quickest. Turning this way and that, rather like a sharp-eyed bird sizing up its lunch, Felicity studied herself. She’d taken to wearing high-necked jerseys and was delighted with the piecrust-collared shirts that Princess Diana had made the vogue. She found them very flattering. After all, there was no point in letting herself go because her husband had died. Mark would have approved her determination to keep the flag flying. Perhaps it was a little easier for a woman whose husband had been away so much. She was used to being alone and had long since equipped herself with a circle of friends and amusements with which to ward off loneliness and boredom and, if she were to be brutally honest, Mark had become a little dull towards the end, his mind and will so firmly bent on his career. It went without saying that she’d been all for it. Nevertheless, promotion-chasing is a full-time occupation and Mark had become preoccupied and less companionable. She missed him. Of course she did. They had been well matched: shrewd, ruthless, self-seeking. Because they had been so alike there had been no need to dissemble and they had, therefore, found the other’s company restful.
Well, it was no good going over and over things. Felicity added a few last touches to her skillfully applied maquillage and sat back satisfied. At least she still had George. It was odd that George, who had never married and who had saved Felicity from loneliness on many occasions throughout her married life, had become much less available since the funeral. He had given her to understand that it wasn’t quite the thing, under the circumstances, to advertise their relationship and that they should wait a while before making anything public. Felicity could see the point. George was still in the Navy and it might not do his career any good to be seen stepping quite so hastily into the dead man’s shoes. Not that he hadn’t tried them on many times in the past. Still, it was sensible not to take any chances. George, who was soon to be finishing his command of a nuclear submarine, would probably be appointed to a desk job at the Ministry of Defence or to HMS Warrior at Northwood and, if so, would be looking for a flat. That would be perfect. London was so big and anonymous, unlike the small moorland village a few miles outside Tavistock where Felicity lived in her old Devon longhouse, and where, in the surrounding area, naval families abounded.
Felicity stood up. She would be very much happier when George was settled somewhere and---a very welcome change---on the end of a telephone. Meanwhile, life must go on. She glanced at herself approvingly in the long looking-glass, picked up her bag from the bed and sallied forth.
Commander George Lampeter finished his breakfast, pushed back his chair and, nodding to one or two of his fellow officers, went up to his cabin, collecting his post on the way. He glanced at the envelopes as he shut the door behind him. One was from Felicity and one was from his mother. He sighed and opened Felicity’s letter first. There were various items of gossip, a reproof for the fact that he hadn’t been in touch and a reminder that she was off to stay with a girlfriend in Exeter for a week. George put the letter on his bed and slit the second envelope. His mother was hoping that he might get down to see her when the submarine was in. Neither woman knew that this was already the case. George maintained his freedom by playing his cards very close to his chest and, since he hated scenes and disliked feeling guilty, he tended to avoid close relationships.
It seemed that his mother was anxious to see him. She told him that she had quite decided she could no longer cope in the Old Station House which was much too big for her now that she was all alone. Nor could she manage the garden with its half-mile of grassed-over track. If George didn’t wish to take the house on, then he must arrange to sell it for her. She had made up her mind to move into sheltered accommodation and she would very much like to talk it over with him. George sighed again and rubbed a well-cared-for hand over his smooth, razor-polished jaw. He ought to go to see her. His father had died some years back and George was the only child. His reluctance was explained by the simple fact that she lived nearer to Felicity than George found safe at present.
He’d been rather taken aback by his emotions when Mark Mainwaring had died. He’d been shocked, of course. After all, Mark was only the same age as himself, not much over forty, and it had made George think about how transitory life was and other unsettling and unpleasant thoughts. But hardly had poor old Mark been planted than Felicity was making suggestive noises and George was very glad to have the excuse of going back to sea. She’d concurred, rather reluctantly under the circumstances he felt, with his suggestion that it would be in poor taste for them suddenly to make public their relationship---although most of their acquaintance must know about it by now---and had agreed to proceed discreetly for the time being. But what then? There was no doubt that Felicity would have marriage in mind and not without reason. George had been one of Mark’s closest friends and had been deceiving him with his wife on and off for the last twenty years. Hardly surprising then that Felicity should imagine he would now want to legalise the situation. George was rather shocked to realise that he was not at all sure that he wanted her on a full-time basis. Under the right circumstances Felicity could be a wonderful companion. She had a witty, corrosive tongue and was very athletic in bed but would that be enough in a more permanent relationship? George liked a peaceable, ordered existence---which was another reason why he had never married---and he knew perfectly well that Felicity could be a harridan. But what could he do? He could hardly tell her that she was fun as a mistress but that she wasn’t what he wanted as a wife. To be fair, there had been several occasions over the years when he had tried to call a halt but, one way or another---often because she made him feel such a heel---he had gone back to her.
He looked again at his mother’s letter, remembered that Felicity would be in Exeter for a few days, and made a decision. He would go down to Devon to see his mother and try to get things sorted out for her. After all, he had been wondering what to do with his leave and it was only right and proper to put her mind at rest. He might pop in on Felicity afterwards: he’d play it by ear. He glanced at his watch. The trip from the submarine base at Faslane to Tavistock was a long one but he could be there in time for supper. His mind made up, George went to find a telephone.
Mrs. Lampeter replaced the telephone receiver and went straight to the kitchen. Even now, with George at forty-three years old and her in her seventies, she was still inclined to look upon him as the schoolboy who had come home for half-terms and holidays and made directly for the larder. But although her first instinct was to feed him up she did not regard him as a child. She looked at him clearly, even ruthlessly, and saw him with a gaze that was unclouded by mother love. She knew his weaknesses. She knew him to be a kindly, vacillating man whose instinct to keep himself out of trouble caused him to take the easy way out. His modus vivendi was to keep his head down in the hope that problems would go away. Just like his father there, of course. Mrs. Lampeter, bustling in and out of the larder, clicked her tongue. Old-fashioned enough to imagine that the right wife was the answer, she had almost resigned herself to the fact that she would never be a grandmother: almost but not quite. She knew all about Felicity. She’d met her once and the two women had disliked each other on sight. When she’d heard of Mark’s death she had lived in terror of George bringing Felicity home as his wife but a year had passed and Mrs. Lampeter had breathed again. She knew quite well that George was vacillating and had decided that he needed a good sharp kick in the seat of his well-cut flannels with her size four-and-a-half shoe. She suspected that Felicity was merely biding her time until a respectable period of mourning had passed and Mrs. Lampeter hoped to get in first.
Having made her preparations for supper she returned to the telephone and, after peering short-sightedly at her address book, she lifted the receiver and dialled. A young, clear voice answered its ring.
‘Thea, my dear. This is Esme Lampeter...Yes, very well indeed, thank you. Could you give a message to your great-aunt for me, dear?...That’s right. It’s exactly that. Could you tell her that I should love to come to luncheon on Wednesday but there’s one small problem. George will be home...Yes. My son. You’ve never met but of course he knows Hermione...Do you think so? Would you like to ask her? I see him so seldom, you see, that I wouldn’t really like to leave him here alone for the day...How sweet of you. If you’re sure then. He can drive me over. I’m a little nervous on the roads these days...And I’m sure that he will love to meet you, too, my dear. Bless you. Wednesday, then. Love to Hermione.’
Mrs. Lampeter smiled to herself as she went back to the kitchen. She would never interfere, of course. That was not her way. But a helping hand in the right direction was something else again, something, even, that might be looked upon as a duty.
Thea crouched on the club fender and stared into the fire. The Lampeters had gone and after an early supper she and Hermione Barrable had retired to the library. The April evening was cold and the log fire was necessary. Broadhayes was an old granite house built on the edge of Dartmoor not far from Moretonhampstead and none of its inhabitants had ever had the courage to lift its flagged floors or drill through the thick walls to install central heating. Hermione Barrable was used to it. She had lived there for nearly sixty of her eighty-two years and was impervious to the chill. She dressed herself in layers of clothes, winter and summer alike, and looked like nothing so much as an ageing Siberian peasant. Her husband was long since dead, as was her dearly beloved elder brother who had been Thea’s grandfather.
Thea, whose father had the care of a parish in the Shropshire hills, had been brought up in a large, draughty rectory and was as impervious to the cold as her great-aunt. She sat on the fender because that is where she liked to sit. With her red-gold colouring, she glowed in the shadowy room almost as much as the roaring log fire. She was a tall girl, big-boned, long-limbed. Her bright hair was caught back into a thick plait and her amber-brown eyes gazed unseeingly at the leaping flames.
‘I liked George, G.A.,’ she said at last and smiled a little to herself.
‘Mmm?’ murmured Hermione. Her long-fingered old hand was poised over her patience cards as she sat at her small table. She did not raise her eyes but the murmur had been an encouraging one.
‘I liked the way he was with his mother,’ said Thea unexpectedly. ‘He didn’t patronise her and pretend that she was some sort of tiresome child. So many people do that to the elderly, don’t they? It’s as if they think that because they’ve passed a certain age they’ve become children again and are uninformed and incapable. It’s insulting.’
Hermione made her decision and the cards went down, flick, flick, flick. She knew that Thea was more at ease with older people than with those of her own generation, which was probably because her mother had been well into her forties when Thea, her only child, was born, and her upbringing had been a very sheltered one. It was not surprising, thought Hermione, turning a card, that she should be taken with George. He probably seemed like quite a young man to Thea.
‘I think it is possible,’ said Hermione with admirable restraint, for she usually liked the truth as plain and unvarnished as possible, ‘that he may be a little pompous.’
‘He was a bit, wasn’t he?’ Thea chuckled. ‘When he was telling us about the Falklands War, he was definitely the Man in the Know. I thought it was rather sweet.’
Hermione raised her brows as though making a mental note of something and then frowned at an undesirable court card.
‘Of course, he’s a very distinguished-looking man,’ she offered generously.
Thea looked thoughtful. ‘Makes him sound a bit middle-aged,’ she said at last.
‘My darling girl, he is! Must be forty. Probably more.’
‘He didn’t seem middle-aged to me.’ Thea sounded rather wistful.
Hermione gave a tiny sigh. She felt it was only right that Thea should see George clearly but at the same time she knew that Thea would never settle down with a young man of her own age. Her experiences had moved her beyond them. She had gone away to a carefully selected girls’ boarding school at thirteen and had left at seventeen to go home to nurse her mother who had suffered a stroke and was partially paralysed. Thea had taken on these duties with a courage far beyond her years and, when her mother had died three years later, she was too mature to be able to back-pedal and enjoy the light-hearted fun of her peers. She had continued to look after her elderly father and to manage the Rectory and her visits to the elderly Hermione were still the great treats that they had been when she was a child and she had come to stay with her cousin Tim, Hermione’s grandson.
‘I wonder why he’s never married?’ mused Thea, leaning sideways to reach for another log. ‘His mother would like him to settle down. She’s moving into sheltered accommodation and would like George to keep the house and live in it.’
Hermione thought that dear Esme had been a shade too obvious here. She had displayed George’s attractions before Thea as a peacock might spread its tail but it seemed that the girl was oblivious to what might lie behind these tactics and had taken it all quite seriously. She considered what answers she might offer Thea and tried to decide whether she should be encouraging her in her interest. After all, the girl should have her own home and family. She shouldn’t be spending her young life ministering to her father and his parish in the fastness of the Welsh marches. But was George Lampeter quite the right man for her? He had certainly been very taken with her. And what chance had she of meeting desirable and available men who would be attracted by her rather unusual qualities?
‘I expect that Esme would like to be a grandmother,’ said Hermione lightly. Thea might choose to walk into the trap but she, Hermione, would make quite certain that she saw all its workings quite clearly first. She must go of her own free will and with her eyes open. ‘As for why he never married, he may simply have been pursuing his career, although I believe there’s been a married woman he’s been involved with.’
Thea looked thoughtful and Hermione wondered if she should have introduced the subject of Felicity. Esme had poured it all out one day when she had been terrified that George might marry her. The fact that, a year after her husband’s death, he had not done so said something significant; nevertheless, it was only right that Thea should be forewarned. Hermione decided that the whole truth should be told.
‘Apparently she’s been free for a year now so the fact that George is still single must tell us something.’
Thea’s brow cleared a little. Flick, flick, flick went the cards and the logs rustled and creaked a little, sending hissing flames dancing up the wide chimney.
‘He’s invited me over to lunch tomorrow.’ She was smiling again. ‘He offered to drive over to fetch me. Wasn’t that sweet of him?’
‘Very. Did you tell him that you’re perfectly capable of driving yourself?’
‘Well, I didn’t.’ The smile widened. ‘It gives us longer together, you see. And then he’ll have to bring me back.’
Hermione began to laugh, realising that all her warnings would be so much hot air if Thea had made up her mind.
‘Then I hope you enjoy yourself, my darling. These damned cards won’t come out.’ She gathered them up with a great sweeping movement and began to shuffle them.
‘Night cap then?’ Thea stood up, stretched herself and wandered over to the big cage that stood on a round mahogany table in the corner. ‘Percy’s very quiet.’
She stared in at the big African Grey parrot who was hunched sleepily on his perch.
‘He was very good today.’ Hermione pushed back her chair a little. ‘No biblical quotations. Just as well. Poor Esme gets very upset. She doesn’t mind Shakespeare but she can’t quite come to terms with a parrot who quotes from the Bible. Your Great-Uncle Edward was mainly to blame for that, of course. He taught Percy great passages from the Bible as well as other things. Esme, poor soul, thinks it isn’t quite suitable. Heaven knows why. Percy is a very talented parrot and we didn’t see why he should be restricted in his education. I hope that George isn’t as sensitive as his mother.’
‘How d’you mean?’ Thea turned to look at her.
‘It’s always been agreed that you would have Percy when I die.’ Hermione gave her a glinting, mischievous smile. ‘I wouldn’t like to think of a parrot coming between a man and his wife!’
Copyright © 2006 by Marcia Willett