annoyed him in more ways than he'd have believed possible. Bertrand's girl was looking at him interrogatively; her eyebrows, which were darker than her hair, were raised, and she now said, in her rather deep voice: 'Do gratify our curiosity.' Bertrand's eyes, which seemed to lack the convexity of the normal eyeball, were also fixed on him.

'I'm one of your father's underlings,' Dixon said to Bertrand, deciding he mustn't be offensive; 'I cover the medieval angle for the History Department here.'

'Charming, charming,' Bertrand said, and his girl said: 'You enjoy doing that, do you?'

Welch, Dixon noticed, had rejoined the group and was looking from face to face, obviously in quest of a point of entry into the conversation. Dixon resolved to deny him this at all costs. He said, quietly but quickly: 'Well, of course, it has its own appeal. I can quite see that it hasn't the sort of glamour of,' he turned to the girl, 'your line of country.' He must show Bertrand that he wasn't below including her in the conversation.

She looked perplexedly up at Bertrand. 'But I haven't noticed much glamour knocking about in…'

'But surely,' Dixon said, 'I know there must be a lot of hard work and exercise attached to it, but the ballet, well,' he disregarded a nudge from Margaret, 'there must be plenty of glamour there. So I've always understood, anyway.' As he spoke, he gave Bertrand a smile of polite, comradely envy, and stirred his coffee with civilized fingers, splaying them a good deal on the handle of the spoon.

Bertrand was going red in the face and was leaning towards him, struggling to swallow half a bridge roll and speak. The girl repeated with genuine bewilderment: 'The ballet? But I work in a bookshop. Whatever made you think I…?' Johns was grinning. Even Welch had obviously taken in what he'd said. What had he done? He was attacked simultaneously by a pang of fear and the speculation that 'ballet' might be a private Welch synonym for 'sexual intercourse'.

'Look here, Dickinson or whatever your name is,' Bertrand began, 'perhaps you think you're being funny, but I'd as soon you cut it out, if you don't mind. Don't want to make a thing of it, do we?'

The baying quality of his voice, especially in the final query, together with a blurring of certain consonants, made Dixon want to call attention to its defects, also, perhaps, to the peculiarity of his eyes. This might make Bertrand assail him physically - splendid: he was confident of winning any such encounter with an artist - or would Bertrand's pacifism stop him? But in the ensuing silence Dixon swiftly decided to back down. He'd made some mistake about the girl; he mustn't make things any worse. 'I'm terribly sorry if I've made a mistake, but I was under the impression that Miss Loosmore here had something to do with…'

He turned to Margaret for aid, but before she could speak Welch, of all people, had come in loudly with: 'Poor old Dixon, ma-ha-ha, must have been confusing this… this young lady with Sonia Loosmore, a friend of Bertrand's who let us all down rather badly some time ago. I think Bertrand must have thought you were… twitting him or something, Dixon; ba-ha-ha.'

'Well, if he'd taken the trouble to be introduced, this wouldn't have happened,' Bertrand said, still flushed. 'Instead of which, he…'

'Don't worry about it, Mr Dixon,' the girl cut in. 'It was only a silly little misunderstanding. I can quite see how it happened. My name's Christine Callaghan. Altogether different, you see.'

'Well, I'm… thanks very much for taking it like that. I'm very sorry about it, really I am.'

'No no, don't let it get you down, Dixon,' Bertrand said, with a glance at his girl. 'If you'll excuse us, I think we might circulate round the company.'

They moved off, followed at a distance by Johns, towards the Goldsmith group, and Dixon was left alone with Margaret.

'Here, have a cigarette,' she said. 'You must be needing one. God, what a swine Bertrand is. He might have realized…'

'It was my fault, really,' Dixon said, grateful for nicotine and support. 'I should have been there to be introduced.'

'Yes, why weren't you? But he needn't have made it worse. But that's typical of him, as far as I can gather.'

'I sort of couldn't face meeting him. How often have you met him?'

'He came down once before, with the Loosmore girl. I say, it is rather queer, isn't it? He was going to marry the Loosmore then, and now here he is with a new piece. Yes, of course; Neddy gave me a long harangue about when the Loosmore wedding was coming off, and so on, only a couple of days ago. So as far as he knew…'

'Look, Margaret, can't we go out for a drink? I need one, and we shan't get one here. It's only just eight; we could be back…'

Margaret laughed, so that he could see a large number of her teeth, one canine flecked with lipstick. She always made up just a little too heavily. 'Oh, James, you're incorrigible,' she said. 'Whatever next? Of course we can't go out; what do you suppose the Neddies would think? Just as their brilliant son's arrived? You'd get a week's notice like a shot.'

'Yes, you're right, I admit. But I'd give anything for three quick pints. I've had nothing since the one I had down the road yesterday evening, before I showed up here.'

'Much better for your pocket not to have them.' She began to laugh again. 'You were wonderful in the madrigals. Your best performance yet.'

'Don't remind me, please.'

'Even better than your rendering of the Anouilh tough. Your accent made it sound so frightfully sinister. What was it? 'La rigolade, c'est autre chose'? Very powerful, I thought.'

Dixon screamed softly from a tightened throat. 'Stop it. I can't bear it. Why couldn't they have chosen an English play? All right, I know. Don't explain to me. Look, what's going to happen now?'

'Recorders, I think.'

'Well, that lets me out, anyway. No disgrace in not playing them. I'm only a lay brother, after all. Oh, but isn't it horrible, Margaret? Isn't it horrible? How many of the bloody things do you have going at once?'

She laughed again, glancing quickly round the room. This was a reliable sign that she was enjoying herself. 'Oh, any number can play, as far as I know.'

Dixon laughed too, trying to forget about beer. It was true that he had only three pounds left in his tin box to last until pay-day, which was nine days off. In the bank he had twenty-eight pounds, but this was a fund he'd started against the chance of being sacked.

'Pretty girl, that Christine Whatshername,' Margaret said.

'Yes, isn't she?'

'Wonderful figure she's got, hasn't she?'


'Not often you get a figure as good as that with a good-looking face.'

'No,' Dixon tensed himself for the inevitable qualification.

'Pity she's so refained, though.' Margaret hesitated, then decided to gloss this epithet. 'I don't like women of that age who try to act the gracious lady. Bit of a prig, too.'

Dixon, who'd arrived at similar conclusions already, found he didn't much want to have them confirmed in this way. 'Oh, I don't know,' he said. 'Can't really tell at this stage.'

This was greeted with the tinkle of tiny bells. 'Ah, you always were one for a pretty face, weren't you? Covers a multitude is what I always say.'

He thought this profoundly true and, debarred from saying so, was at a loss what to reply. They looked anxiously at each other, as if whatever either might say next must be an insult. Finally Dixon said: 'She does seem rather as if she's tarred with the same brush as Bertrand.'

She gave him a curious sardonic smile. 'I should say they've got a lot in common.'

'I imagine so.'

A maidservant was now collecting the used crockery, and the company was moving about. The next stage of the evening was clearly imminent. Bertrand and his girl had disappeared, possibly to unpack. At Welch's summons, Dixon left Margaret to help arrange some chairs. 'What's the next item on the programme, Professor?' he asked.

Welch's heavy features had settled into their depressive look after the manic phase of the last hour and a half. He gave Dixon a mutinous glare. 'Just one or two instrumental items.'

'Oh, that'll be nice. Who's first on the list?'

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