20. "The Unhappiest Millionaire"
We didn’t stir terribly early that Friday morning. In a foolish moment I had offered Caro breakfast in bed, so at about half past nine I was shoved out into the cold and sent downstairs.
Barbara was in the kitchen with Mrs Muller, sharing a pot of tea. ‘You look great,’ I said to Barbara as I tried to remember what Caro had asked for. I opened the cupboard; I felt rather than heard Barbara give a slight sigh. I looked at her. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I’m afraid I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go.’
She smiled bravely. ‘Ian rang this morning – he’s been called away, something very important. He has some sort of scientific post now, involving all sorts of different duties. Some of it is government work – he couldn’t tell me what this one entailed, but he thinks he’ll be away at least six weeks.’
‘Oh. I’m sorry.’
She nodded. ‘Thank you. So was he, I think.’ She swallowed. ‘So am I.’
‘Come with us.’ The words came out before I even knew what I was thinking. ‘Must be a while since you had a good look at Oxford Street.’
‘I don’t think playing gooseberry would contribute greatly to my self-esteem at the moment.’ She was holding her voice steady with an effort.
‘It won’t be like that. Besides, which self are you talking about? I thought that one wasn’t real.’
This provoked a smile. ‘I think I’m depressed enough to indulge in a little hypocrisy. Thank you for the offer, but I really couldn’t—’
‘You should go,’ said Mrs Muller suddenly. ‘Let the young people take you out of yourself.’ She gave a tiny smile. ‘The self that is depressed.’
I could see Barbara was wavering. ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ I asked.
‘I could spoil your day out.’
‘As if we‘d let you do that…’
In the end, it was a very nice day. Caro didn’t need much persuading, and when she saw how down Barbara was she worked very hard to involve her in what we were doing. In the end I was the closest to being left out, as we tripped through the big stores in Oxford Street and then spent what felt like most of a lifetime in Carnaby Street. Caro seemed to have accepted a rather large amount of money from her father, and she insisted on spending some of it on Barbara and me. I didn’t need any clothes, so she and Barbara tried on endless items throughout the afternoon. Caro was obviously trying to bring Barbara into the sixties; Barbara resisted a little, but they ended up with a compromise, a floral pattern dress, rather more brightly-coloured than Barbara might have chosen for herself.
There were odd moments during the day when I saw Barbara drift off; I knew she was still thinking about Ian. She had screwed up her courage to face him – and probably started to really look forward to the meeting – and now she had to wait again.
Eventually we escaped from the clothes shops and went in search of books and records. We found a stall that had a lot of old science fiction; I pointed it out to Barbara and she grimaced slightly, but then her eye was caught by something; she passed me the bag with her dress in, picked out a book and asked the stall-keeper how much. It turned out to be sixpence, something even she could afford, and she bought it.
‘This is something I’ve been looking for for quite a while.’
‘What is it?’
She showed me the tattered cover. Starmaker, by Olaf Stapledon.
‘That is weird.’
‘You mean, you’ve read it?’
‘No. I read his other famous one – Last And First Men. No, it’s such a strange coincidence. I told you Caro’s Dad was going on about the universe – this was the book he mentioned. Swore by it.’
‘Really.’ Barbara turned the book over and read the copy on the back. ‘It is supposed to be remarkable. But I wonder whether it is coincidence, finding it now? I wonder if there’s any such thing.’
‘I’m not going to get into that predestination debate again.’
She smiled, and touched my arm. ‘Thank you for inviting me out today. You’ve brought me back to life.’
‘No more than you did for me a couple of nights ago.’
Caro appeared. ‘Found anything you like?’
I shrugged. ‘I’ve hardly looked. It’s probably getting late; we could do this another day.’
‘But I must get you something today.’
I was going to argue but I recognised that determined pout. ‘All right, I’ll have a look.’
‘It should be something that’ll inspire you to do great work yourself.’
‘Okay, okay…’ I ended up with Henry James’ Art of Fiction and a large volume of Tolstoy’s short stories. Barbara was particularly interested in the latter, pointing out that most of Tolstoy’s later work had a religious theme. ‘He came to believe it was of paramount importance.’
‘And made the lives of his family hell as a result,’ put in Caro. ‘The way he treated his wife..! I wouldn’t put up with that from any man, however great.’
‘He was only human,’ said Barbara mildly. ‘He did what he thought was right.’
‘I’m not arguing with people having the right to believe what they like. It’s when they force it on everyone around them…’
‘I understand how you feel,’ said Barbara. ‘But you must appreciate that he really thought he was doing it for their own good, to save their souls.’
‘Not everything he did,’ insisted Caro.
‘Let’s save this for another time, shall we?’ I interposed. ‘We should be getting home.’
Caro got us a taxi, which dropped Barbara and me off before taking her back to the Kings Road. Before we parted Caro got out of the car, put her arms around my neck and murmured: ‘Well, I think we cheered her up. I’ll call you tomorrow night – perhaps we can have an un-chaperoned day on Sunday.’
‘Sounds good to me.’
Once inside the house Barbara thanked me again. ‘Oh – and you didn’t tell me what you thought of my conversation with the Doctor.’
‘We both read it, actually. I think Caro came down on the Doctor’s side – she seems to think the questions are unanswerable, so a waste of time.’
I took off my coat slowly, giving myself time to think. ‘I have a lot of respect for your intelligence,’ I told her, hanging up the coat, ‘so I can’t dismiss something that obviously means so much to you. At the same time, it’s very difficult to accept something without evidence. What if you’re wrong? That would make all this thinking, this questioning, a complete waste of time and effort.’
She looked at me, her mouth compressed into a line. ‘I wonder what I could say to make you appreciate how important, how vital it really is.’
‘You’re the one who always says words aren’t enough. Maybe it would take something like what happened to you – meeting Maharshi.’
‘I hope not. Those occasions are rare. I was very lucky.’
I shook my head at her. ‘If everything is predetermined, what the hell does lucky mean?’
She laughed softly. ‘You’re very good at spotting inconsistencies in what I say. It’s because I still think on a very ordinary level. It’s true that there’s no such thing as luck. Hindus would say that I had earned my meeting with Bhagavan, because of something I’d done in a previous life – good karma, or grace.’
‘Is that what you think?’
‘Bhagavan would probably say that the past doesn’t matter – the thing is to understand what we are now.’ She put up her hands. ‘I know – that’s not an answer to what you asked. I suppose the answer is that I don’t know. Reincarnation is an idea that makes sense to me, but as to whether I really believe it…’
‘There’re a lot more people in the world these days. If we’re all being reincarnated, where do so many new souls come from?’
‘From God. We’re all little pieces of God, Conrad. Where else would we come from?’
Caro and I had our day together on Sunday – I went to her place and apart from a short walk, we stayed in the whole day, just talking and engaging in our own brand of indoor gymnastics. I was slightly distracted by my concern for Barbara, who still seemed a little forlorn, but in Caro’s company the day passed so quickly that the fall of dusk surprised me. She also had to remind me that it was New Year’s Eve.
‘We always go up to the fortress,’ she told me. ‘I hadn’t really thought about it when we planned today, but I’ll have to be there.’ She looked at the time. ‘Guy’ll probably be here to pick me up in a couple of hours.’ She gave me a direct stare. ‘You’re invited, of course. Think you can cope with that much adventure?’
‘I think so – on one condition.’
‘You want to go for four times in a day?’
I batted away her hands. ‘No. I want to bring Barbara.’
She seemed slightly taken aback, but she nodded. ‘I don’t see why not…Guy can swing past there on the way back from here – but what about Mrs Muller? Won’t she be—’
‘She always goes to my parents. I mean, she’ll probably have invited Barbara, but I think she might feel a bit out of place there.’
‘And your parents might interrogate her about you,’ Caro smiled.
‘That too. Can I ring her from here, now?’
Barbara was also taken aback, but I could tell she was intrigued by the idea and she didn’t need much persuading. And any reservations Caro might have had vanished when Barbara came up to the car in the dress they had chosen together.
‘I feel as though the whole street must be looking at me,’ Barbara said as she slid into the back seat.
‘Why shouldn’t they?’ responded Caro, turning from her place in the front. ‘You look great.’
Barbara said nothing but she could not suppress a pleased smile.
Things got a little crowded in the back after that, as we picked up Vee and Roxie from a pub on the way out of the city. I was a little surprised they were going to be present, but they said they’d been enticed by Caro’s tales of the fireworks. ‘Legendary as Gandalf’s,’ said Roxie.
Barbara was squeezed up against me now – even with Roxie on Vee’s lap – which was by no means unpleasant although it no longer affected me as it once might have. ‘I hope you’ll be able to resist the seductive lure of wealth, like I did,’ I murmured to her.
‘We’ll see, won’t we?’
‘I think you’ll like Blackman. He’s not what you’d expect.’
‘Does he know I’m coming?’
‘He won’t mind,’ said Guy. ‘He likes intelligent, attractive people.’
Barbara emitted a very loud silence and bowed her head slightly. I gave her wrist a quick squeeze.
Most of the conversation for the rest of the journey was made by Vee and Roxie, who proceeded to tell a series of stories about their homosexual acquaintances and their adventures that made no allowances for Barbara’s presence. Guy and Caro were soon shrieking with laughter, but I felt a little restrained by the silent figure by my side. At one point I asked her, sotto voce, if she was all right; she turned her eyes to me and nodded, and she did look quite relaxed.
The house impressed her. I helped her out of the car and she stood for a moment and looked up at it. ‘If anyone had asked me, three weeks ago, where I’d be spending New Year’s Eve…’
Blackman himself came out to greet us. Guy quickly introduced Barbara and Blackman took her hand and raised it to his lips. ‘Any friend of Conrad’s is more than welcome, at any time.’
‘You’re very kind.’
Blackman shook hands with me before offering his arm to Barbara. Ross was nowhere to be seen; Caro whispered that he’d had an attractive offer from a TV company in the states; another actor had overdone his Christmas celebrations and incapacitated himself just before shooting was due to start on a pilot.
‘Your timing is excellent,’ Blackman was saying to Barbara as we entered the hall. ‘We were just about to sit down to dinner.’
‘Ohhh…thank you, but I’m afraid I’m vegetarian…’
‘I don’t think you’ll find that’s a problem.’
And it wasn’t; every taste was catered for. This time the dining room – dining hall, really – was utilised to its full capacity. I estimated the number of guests at about fifty – mostly, by their appearance, business associates of Blackman’s and their wives. Most of them were dressed for a formal dinner, and it was a little odd to see stuffy-looking middle-aged men roaring with mirth at Vee and Roxie’s risqué line in conversation (some of the wives were more frosty, perhaps fearing competition) but I quickly realised that to be invited here at all these men were most likely the ones who had shown the greatest acceptance of Blackman’s more unorthodox side.
Blackman was incredibly attentive to Barbara, perhaps sensing the suddenness of her inclusion in the party. He re-arranged the seating to have her placed next to him, and seemed to virtually ignore his other guests as he talked to her. This caused one or two steely looks from the other women, but I was rather proud on Barbara’s behalf. My only regret was that I was a little too far down the table to hear what they were talking about. I kept looking their way, until a kick from Caro reminded me where my own attention really ought to be.
It was nearly nine when we got up from the table. We moved into a huge room that I had not seen before, one wall of which was a huge set of French windows that looked out onto the lawn at the back of the house. In the gloom I could just make out the trees where we had walked only a few days earlier.
Blackman came towards me, taking Barbara’s hand and offering it to me. ‘I shall have to return your charming friend to you for a short while. Even at this hour, the world of business appears unable to sleep.’ He inclined his head to Barbara and moved away.
Barbara immediately turned away from me and helped herself to a glass of orange juice from a tray carried by a passing servant. She sipped at the drink, her eyes darting around the room; her face looked slightly flushed.
‘Well..!’ I said. ‘You certainly seem to have made an impression.’
‘Don’t,’ she murmured with a guilty smile. ‘I don’t know what I’ve done to merit such treatment. I thought you told me he was…I mean, are you sure he’s...?’
‘Well, he did get married, I s’pose…’ I saw her face and said: ‘I’m sure he’s just being nice. What did you two talk about, anyway?’
‘Well…mostly about me, I think. He kept asking me questions, and it seemed rude not to answer. He already knows more about what I’ve done than my mother ever will.’
I felt, stupidly, a little jab of jealousy, but I simply said: ‘And…the Doctor?’
‘I didn’t think he was quite ready for that. We did talk about Stapledon, though. I’m not quite sure how we got onto the subject. He urged me to read Starmaker as soon as I could.’
Caro appeared from wherever she had gone. She was holding an empty wine glass, and I could tell she was on her way to becoming drunk. Her eyes were unnaturally bright, and she leaned on Barbara’s shoulder. ‘You really do look fab in that dress. You’ve shown up all the kept women. Even Vee’s been giving you the eye.’
I could see Barbara didn’t know quite how to take this. Caro smiled at me through her disordered hair. ‘Daddy has rashly handed the music over to Guy and me. I wanted to play the Velvets, but Guy’s a spoilsport. We might get Pepper and Highway 61, though.’
I could already hear the opening bars of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. It brought back memories of that rehearsal when I had first seen her; it seemed impossible that it was only three weeks ago. Already I could hardly imagine what my life had been like without her. Suddenly I wished I had a camera; I would have liked a photo of the two of them together.
There was a flash from somewhere. I looked around; two of the servants were moving among the guests and taking snapshots, presumably on Blackman’s instructions. It was like the answer to a prayer. I caught the eye of one of them, and indicated Barbara and Caro. He obliged, just before Barbara had time to turn away. As the man moved away, she muttered: ‘I don’t photograph at all well…’
‘Pity,’ said Caro, ‘cos I photograph fabulously.’
‘How will I get a copy of that?’ I asked Caro, waving a hand in the direction of the departed servant.
‘There’ll be lots. You can take one before you go.’ She looked around. ‘I hope they got one of you. I want one to take with me to scare the camels.’
I was still grappling with the first part of what she’d said. ‘They’ll be ready before we go?’
‘They’ll work through the night. There’s a photo-lab in the basement – next to the recording studio,’ said Caro carelessly. ‘Both relics of the time Guy thought he had talent.’
‘Your father paid to have them built – for your brother?’ asked Barbara, surprised. ‘That was…’
Caro saved her from finishing the sentence. ‘He was always worried that…being what he was…made him inadequate as a father. He tried to very hard to give us what we wanted. Still does.’
‘He obviously loves you very much.’
Caro shrugged. ‘What’s not to love?’ Then her face grew serious. ‘Just wish he’d relax a bit, see that he doesn’t have to try any more. He should enjoy what he’s done already…’ She leaned closer to me, drawing Barbara with her. ‘We tried to get him to come with us – to the Middle East. Just for part of it – a week or so. He couldn’t bring himself to leave "the empire".’
‘He’s used to having complete control,’ said Barbara. ‘I can imagine that would be difficult to relinquish, after so long.’
‘Hey, maybe you could persuade him,’ exclaimed Caro, facing Barbara. ‘He likes you. Try to tell him he needs a holiday.’
‘I don’t think it’s my place to tell your father what to do.’
‘Someone has to. He won’t even listen to Ross. We all worry about him a bit. He seems so…so…’
I made a shushing motion, as Blackman was now coming towards us. He put his fingers to one ear as he came up. ‘I had a feeling I might regret handing the stereo system over to Guy…this is that American version of Donovan, isn’t it?’
Caro gave him a light punch. ‘You only say things like that to annoy me. Dylan has more talent in his little finger…’
Blackman looked at Barbara. ‘I’m sorry I had to leave you. You’ll have to forgive me again; I’ve enjoyed our conversation more than I can say, but I have one or two other guests, and I can’t be seen to neglect them.’ He kissed her hand.
Caro whispered to me: ‘Phoned ahead, told him to look after her – said she was a bit lost at the moment. Done all right, hasn’t he?’
I nodded, but decided to withhold the information from Barbara. Unless I was very much mistaken Blackman genuinely liked her; there was no need for her to know the truth. She watched Blackman as he moved away; there was a faint smile on her lips.
Caro was tugging at my sleeve. ‘You never saw my room last time. C’mon; before it gets to midnight.’
‘Um…I’m not sure if I should—’
‘I’ll be all right,’ cut in Barbara. ‘I’m not an invalid. Go on, if you want to.’
So we slipped out and went upstairs, Caro practically running and dragging me by my sweater sleeve. We passed a servant on the way, who did an excellent job of appearing not to even see us. When we reached the door, Caro pushed it open and shoved me in first. She came behind me and switched on the light.
It was a smaller room than I had expected, and in many ways it was just like the bedrooms of several other girls I’d known, intimately and otherwise. There were the rows of teddy bears and the records, and some magazines. And posters; Dylan and The Beatles, of course, but also Dusty Springfield, Marianne Faithful, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. Caro paused in front of this last one. ‘That was a shame.’ She looked back at me. ‘Didn’t you think that was a shame?’
I hardly knew his work, so the news of his death earlier in the month hadn’t really registered. I went to the window – the curtains were still drawn back – and saw some of the servants moving about on the back lawn. ‘What’s going on down there?’
She joined me, taking my arm and leaning against me. ‘Getting the fireworks ready. They’ll throw open the French windows and we’ll watch from there. Warmer that way.’
‘You do this every year?’
‘Ever since I can remember.’ She made a satisfied sound. ‘Money does have some advantages.’
That reminded me of something I had been meaning to ask her. ‘I…was under the impression – I think it was Vee who told me – that you kept your distance from your Dad’s money. But this week you’ve been throwing it about like…like…’
‘Well, it doesn’t matter now.’ She looked up at me. ‘You liked me before you knew I was rich. That was all I wanted; someone who liked me for me.’ She put her head down against my chest. ‘That’s one of the reasons Daddy’s so keen on you. I mean, he likes you anyway, he really does…but he’d have been grateful to anyone who let him start spending money on me again.’
Robert Blackman suddenly seemed a slightly pathetic figure to me, in spite of everything he had and everything he’d achieved. I wondered where his real satisfaction in life lay, what really made him happy. I began to see why others might worry about him.
Caro reached up and pulled my head down, offering her lips. I knew we could be seen from below, but I guessed she knew it too and didn’t care. Or maybe that’s why she was so intent on kissing me; a demonstration to the world. I let her make the gesture.
We went downstairs shortly afterward. My first thought was to look for Barbara, but she seemed comfortable enough talking to one of the younger businessmen. So we sought out Vee and Roxie, who were engaged in trying to persuade Guy to bring out the more progressive portions of his record collection. Guy was standing firm against their pleas, and responded more favourably to my suggestion of Rubber Soul. He plucked a Hendrix record out of Roxie’s hands and nodded at me. ‘You see, there’s a man who understands compromise.’
Roxie pouted in my direction. ‘Well, we only told the cleaner stories at dinner…’
Guy replaced the Hendrix in the rack. ‘Only because you didn’t want the other guests throwing up all over you.’
And so the night passed. At about quarter to midnight the French windows were opened and all the lights went off. Everyone went to stand looking out at the night; there were three braziers blazing a few feet from the house, so anyone who felt cold could huddle close to the flames. I looked around for Barbara, but couldn’t see her. Blackman seemed also to be searching for someone, and I wondered if his object was the same as mine.
‘Any hopes for sixty-eight?’ Guy asked me as I caught his eye over Caro’s head.
‘It’ll have to go some to beat this year,’ I said, and Caro’s arms pulled tighter around me. I kissed the top of her head and wished Barbara was beside me. It felt wrong, spending the last few minutes of the year without her.
Guy slipped away. I saw him crouch by the record player and a few moments later ‘Hello Goodbye’ began blasting out. He came back and shrugged at me. ‘Couldn’t think of anything more appropriate – and at least it’s current.’
The buoyancy of The Beatles seemed to communicate itself to the guests; I could swear some of them were even singing along. Caro was grumbling discontentedly into my chest, giving her own choices of songs – but my strongest feeling was a surge of relief as I spotted Barbara coming towards us from the passageway. She had one of the servants’ frock coats draped over her shoulders and she seemed a little unsteady on her feet, but she smiled at me as she drew close.
‘Just in time,’ said Roxie. ‘You don’t want to miss this.’
She smiled again, tightly. A strand of her hair had fallen across her face and she brushed it back absently. I leaned towards her. ‘Are you all right? You seem—’
‘I’m a little cold, that’s all.’
‘You look a bit wobbly.’
‘I’m not used to the wine.’
I hadn’t seen her drink anything but fruit juice. Suddenly I felt something was wrong. I stared at her. She met my gaze, and straightened her shoulders. ‘I’m fine.’ She nodded towards the lawn. ‘It’s time. You don’t want to miss this.’
People were counting down. ‘…Seven, six, five…’ I took my eyes from her and forced my gaze forward. ‘...Two, one...’
There was a cheer, some clinking of glasses, and an explosion of light and colour. I’m not keen on fireworks, but I have to admit I’ve never seen anything like the display we were treated to for the next fifteen minutes. Roxie sank down onto her knees and leaned her head against Vee’s legs, staring upwards, open-mouthed. Guy stood a little apart, arms folded, a slight smile on his face. Caro clung to me.
And Barbara watched it all with a kind of grim determination. I glanced at her every minute or so; she stood stiff, the coat pulled around her and her mouth drawn in a tight line. She did not look at me.
As the last squibs were dying away I saw one of the servants go up to Blackman. He said something into his master’s ear, and Blackman seemed to grow rigid; he looked about wildly before his eyes fastened on Barbara. His mouth twitched open for a moment; he took two steps towards her, stopped and then went with the servant, almost pushing his way through the guests. They walked rapidly out of the room; Barbara followed their movements with her eyes.
‘C’mere,’ crooned Caro, reaching up. ‘I want to wish you a proper New Year.’
I pushed her away, firmly but not roughly, and turned to Barbara. ‘What the hell is going on?’ I said in a low voice.
Barbara’s jaw trembled.
There was shouting from the rear of the room. Blackman stood in the doorway, facing the youngish businessman I had seen talking to Barbara. Abruptly I was awfully afraid I knew exactly what was going on. Blackman was almost screaming at the man. Without knowing why I grabbed at the coat Barbara was wearing and pulled it off her shoulders. Her dress was torn; there were bruises on her arm.
Caro was beside me, her jaw slack with uncomprehending dismay. ‘What did you do to your dress?’
Barbara snatched the coat back from my unresisting hands and pulled it around her. She dropped her eyes.
Guy had put the record on repeat but it was cut off suddenly. All the lights in the room came on. Blackman stood facing his guests. His face was flushed but he held himself very still.
‘Everyone will have to leave now. I’m very sorry, but one of my guests has been…’ he swallowed and his hands clenched. ‘There has been a quite inexcusable incident. Please don’t ask for explanations; leave quickly. Now. Everyone but my children and their friends.’
There was a murmur that sounded almost like a chuckle, as if some of the guests thought it was a joke. But the servants began to shepherd people towards the exit, and eventually they started to move. Through it all Blackman stood immobile, looking straight ahead and not acknowledging the muted goodbyes and seasonal greetings that came his way. Only once did he look at one of the guests. A woman muttered something; he fixed her in his gaze and hissed, ‘You will not cast such aspersions on my daughter’s friend. You are no longer welcome in this house.’
Caro was looking from her father to Barbara; I could see the truth filtering through the alcoholic haze. She plucked at the coat as if she wanted to make sure of what she had seen.
As the last of the guests were ushered out, Blackman came stiffly over to us. I’ve never seen such anguish on a man’s face. He stood looking at Barbara, his hands clasped together.
Roxie was clinging to Vee. Guy excused himself in a mutter and walked over to the servants standing by the doors.
Blackman brought a hand up to his face. His shoulders were shaking. Caro ran to him and held him; he did not respond to her embrace. ‘There’s nothing I can say…’
‘It’s all right,’ said Barbara quite calmly. ‘I’m not hurt. It was a bit frightening, that’s all.’
‘It is not "all right"!’ raged Blackman. ‘My guest…in my own house…’
Barbara stepped towards him, her hand out. ‘Really, I’m all right.’
Blackman broke free of Caro and pushed himself away from her. He looked at Barbara for a moment then turned and strode away. Caro started after him but she was caught by Guy as he returned. ‘Leave him for a little while. I’ll go after him in a minute.’ He half-carried her back towards us; I lifted my arms to take her but Guy jerked his head at Vee and she and Roxie took Caro. Guy looked bleakly at Barbara, then took me by the arm and led me just outside the open windows.
‘You’ll be glad to know it didn’t get too far,’ he said in a low voice. ‘He must have followed her to the toilet; one of the servants heard them and stopped it. I think she’s probably just shaken up.’
‘Thank God.’ I was thinking of what she had told me about Vasor.
‘Now,’ said Guy, ‘there’s the problem of what to do with the bastard. The servants have got him in the cloakroom; I can have them break his head and throw him into a ditch somewhere.’
For a moment I was too shocked to reply. ‘Uh…I think that should be up to Barbara, really. It’s up to her to press charges, or whatever…’
Guy seemed to sneer, but after a moment he nodded. ‘If you think she’s in a state to make that kind of decision.’
‘She’s tougher than she looks.’
He nodded again, and we went back inside. Caro came to me immediately, so I hung back as Guy put the options to Barbara.
‘Good God, no,’ was her response. ‘Let him go.’
‘Nothing really happened. I’m sure he’ll regret it in the morning.’
‘We can make him regret it now…’
‘No. No, I’d rather just forget it. It doesn’t matter. Your father is the one I’m worried about.’
Guy stared at her, his breath coming heavily. Then he turned away and walked over to the servants at the door, snapping his fingers. They went out of the room.
I looked at Barbara. ‘He should be punished…’
She shook her head. ‘It’s not as if he was likely to do it again. It was a combination of things.’ The distress of everyone around her seemed to be giving her strength; her voice was as steady as I’d ever heard it. ‘Besides, he will be punished – believe me.’
We stood there, slightly numb, for several minutes. We were brought cups of tea, which we all took gratefully. I looked out over the darkened lawn as the windows were being closed, and wondered what had become of the happiness I’d felt only an hour ago. Caro was leaning against me, silently clutching her teacup.
Barbara came up to us. ‘Sorry,’ she murmured. ‘I seem to have put rather a dampener on everyone’s New Year.’
I stared at her.
From somewhere in the house there was a sharp sound. It was something I’d never heard in real life, but I recognised it instantly.
It was a shot.