'Pity you couldn't have waited a little longer. I've been on the phone, you see. It was that chap from the… from the…'

'See you later.' Dixon began edging past to the doorway.

'Aren't you going to stay for the P. Racine Fricker?'

'Shan't be long, Professor. I just think I'll…' Dixon made some gestures meant to be indecipherable. 'I'll be back.'

He shut the door on Welch's long-lived, wondering frown.


'HE was going down-grade making ninety miles an hour, when his whistle began to scream,' Dixon sang. 'He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle…' He broke off, panting; it was hard work walking up the dry sandy track to the Welches' house, especially with so much beer distributed about his frame. A dreamy smile stretched his face in the darkness as he savoured again in retrospect that wonderful moment at ten o'clock. It had been like a first authentic experience of art or human goodness, a stern, rapt, almost devotional exaltation. Gulping down what he'd assumed must be his last pint of the evening, he'd noticed that drinks were still being ordered and served, that people were still coming in and that their expressions were confident, not anxious, that a new sixpence had tinkled into the works of the bar-billiard table. Illumination had come when the white-coated barman struggled in with two fresh crates of Guinness. The little town and the city were in different counties; the local pubs, unlike the city pubs and the hotel he went to with Margaret, stayed open till ten-thirty during the summer, and the summer had now officially begun. His gratitude had been inexpressible in words; only further calls at the bar could pay that happy debt. As a result he'd spent more than he could afford and drunk more than he ought, and yet he felt nothing but satisfaction and peace. Rebounding painfully from the gatepost, he began creeping round the cobbled environs of the house.

The large, long room at the back, where the music had been going on, was in darkness. That was good. Further round, however, where the drawing-room was, there were lights and, he soon found, voices in conversation. Peering through a chink in the curtains, he saw Welch, in his crimson-striped blue raincoat and fishing-hat, just going out of the door, followed by the local composer and Cecil Goldsmith, both of them also dressed in raincoats. People were evidently about to be driven home; Dixon grinned as he imagined the sort of drive Welch would give them. Carol, in a light tweed coat, stayed for a moment to exchange a last remark with Bertrand. Nobody else was in the room.

A nearby window was open, but Dixon couldn't catch the words now spoken by Bertrand. He could tell from their intonation, however, that they formed a question, to which Carol said: 'Yes, all right.' At this, Bertrand stepped forward and put his arms round her. Dixon couldn't see what followed, because Bertrand had his back to the window, but if there was a kiss it lasted only a moment; Carol freed herself and hurried out. Bertrand went too.

Dixon went back to the music-room and got in through the french window. What he'd seen had disturbed him in some way he couldn't tie down. Though theoretically inured to that kind of activity, he found its dose proximity disagreeable rather than anything else. To have seen and talked to Cecil Goldsmith several times a week for some months didn't make the fellow any less a nonentity, but it gave him a claim on one, a claim which was somehow invoked by the sight of his wife being handled by a third party, especially that third party. Dixon wished he hadn't found that gap in the curtains, then thrust the matter from his mind. All his attention would be needed for the operation of getting up to his bedroom undetected.

Deciding that the small risk of someone coming into the music-room had got to be faced anyway, Dixon groped through the darkness to an armchair, lay back in it, closed his eyes, and heard with satisfaction the sound of Welch's car being started up and driven away. After a moment, he felt as if he were heeling over backwards, and the pit of his stomach seemed to swell so as to start enclosing his head within it. He opened his eyes again, making his tragic-mask face; yes, it had after all been a bad idea to take that last pint. He got up and began a skipping-with-arms-raising exercise he'd learnt all about in the R.A.F. Five hundred skips and raising of the arms had helped to clear his head before. After a hundred and eighty an unclear head seemed much preferable to more skips. It was time to move.

Half-way across the hall he heard the sound of Bertrand's laugh, but well muffled by an intervening door. He creaked up the stairs and across the landing. Through some architectural vagary, his bedroom could only be approached by way of a large bathroom, the outer door of which he now tried to open. Nothing happened. The bathroom was evidently occupied; perhaps Johns had decided to blockade the bedroom allotted to the defacer of his periodical. Dixon stood well back, straddling, and raised his hands like a conductor on the brink of some thunderous overture or tone-poem; then, half-conductor, half-boxer, went into a brief manic flurry of obscene gestures. Just then somebody opened a door on the other side of the landing. There was no time to do anything at all except adopt the attitude of one waiting outside a bathroom, a stratagem vitiated to some extent by the raincoat he still wore.

'James! What on earth are you doing?'

Never had Dixon been so glad to see Margaret rather than anyone else. 'Ssshh,' he said. 'Get me away from here.'

He liked her even more when she beckoned to him and led him, without more words, into her bedroom. Just as he closed the door of this, whoever it was came out of the bathroom. Dixon realized his heart had been pounding. 'Thank God for that,' he said.

'Well, where have you been all the evening, James?'

While he told her he commented adversely to himself on her resentful expression and manner, which soon overrode his feelings of relief. What would this sort of thing be like if they ever got married? At the same time he had to admit she looked at her best in the blue dressing-gown, her brown hair, tawny in places, loosed from its pins and rolls. He took off his raincoat and lit a cigarette, beginning to feel better. He finished what he had to say without mentioning what he'd seen through the drawing-room window.

After hearing him out in silence she smiled slightly. 'Well, I can't really blame you, I suppose. It was rather rude, all the same. I could see Mrs Neddy thought it was a bit off.'

'Oh, she thought that it was a bit that, did she? Where did you say I'd gone?'

'I didn't get a chance to say anything: Evan told her he thought you'd probably gone to the pub.'

'I'll wring that little bastard's neck one of these days. My God, that's good, isn't it? Nice friendly spirit. This ought to put me nicely in bad with the Neddies. And don't call him Evan.'

'Don't worry too much. Neddy didn't seem to mind.'

Dixon snorted. 'How can you possibly be sure of that? There's no way of telling what goes on inside that head of his, if anything. Just hang on here a minute, will you? There's something I want to do in the bathroom. Don't go away.'

When he came back she was still sitting on the bed, but had evidently put on some lipstick for him. This pleased him, more from the implied compliment than from the actual effect; indeed, he was beginning to feel really good again, and stayed like that, even leaning back in his chair, while for a few minutes they discussed the early part of the evening. Then Margaret said: 'I say, don't you think you ought to be going? It's getting late.'

'I know, I will in a minute. I'm enjoying this.'

'So am I. It's the first time we've been really alone for… how long?'

One of the effects of this query was to make Dixon feel very drunk, and afterwards he could never quite work out why he did what he did next, which was sitting down beside Margaret on the bed, putting his arm round her shoulders and kissing her firmly on the mouth. Whatever his motives - the blue dressing-gown, the uncoiled hair, the specially-put-on lipstick, the pints of local bitter, his wish to bring their relations to some crisis, his wish to avoid a further salvo of intimate questions and avowals, and his worry about his job all came into it - the effects were unequivocal: she put her arms round his neck and kissed him back with zeal, with more zeal, in fact, than she'd shown in any of their previous, rather halfhearted and altogether inconclusive, sexual encounters in her flat. Dixon twitched off his, then her, spectacles and put them down somewhere. He kissed her again, harder; he felt his head spin, faster. After a minute or two there seemed no reason why he shouldn't put his hand in under the

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