listened for a minute or so while Margaret described how good Mrs Welch had been to her in fetching her from the hospital and installing her at the Welches' home to convalesce. She had undoubtedly been very kind to Margaret, even though at other times, when publicly disagreeing with her husband for example, she was the only living being capable of making Dixon sympathize with him. It was rather annoying to hear how kind she'd been; it entailed putting tiresome qualifications on his dislike for her. Finally, Dixon said in a low voice, having first drunk freely from his glass: 'You needn't say anything if you don't want to, but… you are over this business now, aren't you? You wouldn't think of having another shot at it, I mean?'

She glanced up quickly as if she'd been expecting to be asked this, but he couldn't tell whether she was glad or sorry when it came. Then she turned her head away and he could see how thin the flesh was over her jawbone. 'No, I wouldn't have another shot at it,' she said. 'I don't care about him any more; I don't feel anything at all about him, one way or the other. So much so I feel now it was rather silly to have tried at all.'

This made Dixon decide that his apprehensions about the evening had been absurdly out of place. 'Good,' he said heartily. 'Has he tried to get in touch with you or anything?'

'Not a thing, not even so much as a phone message. Vanished without a trace. He might never have existed - as far as we're concerned. I suppose he's too busy with his popsy these days, like he said he'd be.'

'Oh, he said that, did he?'

'Oh yes, our Mr Catchpole was never one to beat about the bush. How did it go? 'I'm taking her off to North Wales with me for a couple of weeks. I thought I ought to tell you before I went off.' Oh, he was charmingly frank about it, James; quite charming in every way.'

Again she turned away from him, and this time the tendons of her neck were prominent, together with the bones at the base. He felt a pang of alarm, which sharpened when he found he could think of nothing to say. As if searching for a text he examined her face, noting the tufts of brown hair that overhung the ear-pieces of her glasses, the crease running up the near cheek and approaching closer than before to the eye-socket (or was he imagining that?), and the faint but at this angle unmistakable downward curve of the mouth. There was nothing there of conversational aliment; he felt for his cigarettes, but before he could use the offer of these as a means of breaking into her pose, she switched back to him with a little smile which he recognized, with self-dislike, as consciously brave.

She drained her glass with a quick gay movement. 'Beer,' she said. 'Buy me beer. The night is young.'

While he was securing the barmaid's attention and getting the drinks, Dixon wondered first how many more rounds of blue-label he might be expected to pay for, and then why Margaret, with her full lecturer's salary uninterrupted by her absence from work, so rarely volunteered to stand him a drink. Finally, though this was no more welcome, he thought of the morning before Margaret had taken her overdose of sleeping-pills. He'd had nothing to do at College that day before a two-hour seminar in the afternoon, and she'd been free after a tutorial hour at ten. After coffee at sevenpence a cup in a recently-opened, and now flourishing, restaurant, they'd gone to a chemist's where she'd wanted to buy a few things. One of the things had been a new bottle of the sleeping-pills. He could remember exactly how she'd looked dropping the bottle, in its sealed white wrapper, into her handbag and glancing up to say: 'If you've got nothing better to do tonight I'll be brewing up about ten. What about dropping in for an hour?' He'd said he would, meaning to turn up, but in the event he hadn't been able to get his next day's lecture written up in time, nor, he realized, had the prospect of another conference about Catchpole seemed inviting when ten o'clock came. In the early evening Catchpole had called on Margaret to tell her he was finished with her, and at about ten she'd eaten the whole bottleful of pills. If he'd been there himself, Dixon thought now for the thousandth time, he'd have been able to prevent her, or, if too late for that, to get her to the hospital a good hour and a half earlier than that fellow Wilson had. He shied away from the image of what would have happened if Wilson hadn't bothered to go up to Margaret's room. What had actually happened was much more unpleasant than anything he could have predicted that morning. The next time he'd seen her was in the hospital a week later.

Pocketing the eightpence change from his two florins, Dixon shoved one of the stemmed glasses along to Margaret. They were sitting at the bar of the Oak Lounge in a large roadside hotel not far from Welch's house. From this seat Dixon felt he could recoup himself a little for the expensiveness of the drinks by eating steadily through the potato crisps, gherkins, and red, green, and amber cocktail onions provided by an ambitious management. He began eating the largest surviving gherkin and thought how lucky he was that so much of the emotional business of the evening had been transacted without involving him directly. She'd said nothing about his recent non-appearance at the Welches', nor had any disintegrating question or avowal been let fall.

'By the way, James,' Margaret said, holding the stem of her glass, 'I want to say how awfully grateful I am to you for your tact these last couple of weeks. It has been good of you.'

Dixon alerted all his faculties. Conundrums that sounded innocuous or even pleasant were the most reliable sign of impending attack, the mysterious horseman sighted riding towards the bullion-coach. 'I didn't know I'd been all that tactful,' he said in an uncoloured tone.

'Oh, just the way you've been keeping in the background. You were the only one who took the trouble to work it out, that I might prefer not to be bombarded with kind inquiries, 'and how are you feeling, my dear, after your unpleasant experience' et cetera. Do you know, old Mother Welch had people from the village who'd never even heard of me before, dropping in to ask how I was. It was really incredible. You know, James, they couldn't have been kinder, but I'll be awfully glad to get out of that place.'

It seemed genuine. She had been known to interpret some of his laziest or most hurtful actions or inactions in this light, though not, of course, as often as she'd interpreted some gesture of support as lazy or hurtful. Perhaps he could now begin to lead the talk somewhere else. 'Neddy said something about you feeling ready to start work again soon,' he said. 'Of course, the exams'll be on us before very long. Are you going to do anything at College before they start?'

'Well, I shall see each of my classes once to answer any questions they may think worth putting. If the effort of thinking up questions won't turn their poor little brains, that is. But I shan't do any more than that this year, apart from marking the scripts. What'll really bring me back to normality'll be getting away from the Neddies, ungrateful as it may sound.' She crossed her legs spasmodically.

'How much longer are you thinking of staying there?'

'Oh, not more than a fortnight, I hope. I want to get out before the summer vac anyway. It all depends how soon I can find somewhere to live.'

'That's good,' Dixon said, his spirits rising as opportunity for greater honesty seemed to be approaching. 'You'll be there next week-end, then.'

'What, for Neddy's arty get-together? Yes, of course. Why, you don't mean you're coming, do you?'

'Yes, that's just what I do mean. The question was popped on the way down in the car. Why, what's so funny?'

Margaret was laughing in the way Dixon had provisionally named to himself 'the tinkle of tiny silver bells'. He sometimes thought that the whole corpus of her behaviour derived from translating such phrases into action, but before he could feel much irritation with himself or her, she said: 'You know what you're in for, do you?'

'Well, fine talk mostly, I hoped. I can waffle with the best of them. What's been laid on, then?'

She ticked the items off on her fingers. 'Part-songs. A play-reading. Demonstration of some sword-dance steps. Recitations. A chamber concert. There's something else, too, but I've forgotten it. I'll remember in a minute.' She went on laughing.

'Don't bother, that's enough to be going on with. My God, this is really serious; Neddy must be going off his head at last. It's absolutely fantastic. Nobody'll come.'

'You're wrong there, I'm afraid: a chap from the Third Programme's promised to turn up. And a camera team from Picture Post. Several of the more prominent local musicians will appear, including your pal Johns with…'

Dixon gave a throttled howl. 'This can't be right,' he said, draining his glass chokingly. 'No more fantasy, please. They can't fit a gang like that into the house. Or are they going to sleep on the lawn? And what…'

'Most of them are just coming down on the Sunday for the day, according to Mrs Neddy. There will be boarders, though, apart from you. Johns is arriving on the Friday evening, probably driven down with you…'

'I'll strangle that little sod before I get into the same…'

'Yes yes of course; don't shout. One of the sons is coming too, with his girl. The girl might be rather interesting; a ballet student, I gather.'

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