“There’s our train,” said Paul, ignoring her remarks. “Come on.”


Melissa had never before travelled farther north than Yorkshire. Paul had fallen asleep as soon as the train had pulled out of the station and so there was no opportunity for any more questions. She made her way to the buffet car and bought herself a gin and tonic and a packet of crisps and returned to her seat. Outside the windows of the train, the bleak February landscape rolled past.

Paul awoke at Newcastle. He stretched and yawned and then blinked at Melissa for a few moments, as if wondering who she was. “Your hair’s different,” he said suddenly. Melissa stiffened. “It’s odd,” said Paul, “but I like it. Makes you look like a bird.”

“I thought you hadn’t even noticed,” commented Melissa.

“I nearly didn’t recognize you at the station,” confessed Paul. “But then I saw your eyes. No one else has eyes like that. They’re very fine.”

Melissa smiled at Paul affectionately. What man, since the days of Jane Austen, had ever told a girl she had fine eyes? “You’d better tell me who’s going,” she said. “I thought it was just to be us. But you said something about your mother…”

“Oh, they’ll all be there,” said Paul, “waiting for the old man to drop off his perch and leave them something. Mother will be there with Jeffrey, my stepfather. He’s a stockbroker and a dry old stick. He’s Andrew Trent’s brother. Then there’s old Andrew’s adopted son Charles, a layabout, and his fiancee, who rejoices in the name Titchy Gold. His sisters, Angela and Betty, arsenic and old lace, will be there as well.”

“And what is Mr Andrew Trent like?”

“Perfectly horrible. A practical joker of the worst kind. I can’t stand him.”

“Then why are we going?”

“Mother ordered me to go.”

“And do you usually do what your mother orders you to do?”

“Most of the time,” said Paul. “Makes life more peaceful.”

“Paul, don’t you think it’s a bit odd of you to ask me to go with you? I mean, it’s not as if we’ve been going out and, I mean…”

“I wanted someone from outside the family with me,” said Paul. “Besides, I like you an awful lot.”

Melissa smiled at him to hide the fact that she was dreading the meeting with his mother.

“Where do we go after we reach Inverness?” she asked.

“There’s no train further north today. I wanted to stay the night in Inverness and travel up in the morning, but Mother said to take a cab. She wanted me to motor up with them, but I don’t like Jeffrey much.”

“How much will a cab cost?”

“About fifty pounds.”

“Gosh, can you afford that?”

“Mother can. And she’s paying.”

Mother, mother, mother, thought Melissa uneasily. Would there be a shop open in Inverness where she could buy a hair dye?

But the train was late and it was nearly nine o’clock on a freezing evening when they landed on the platform at Inverness station. There was a taxi waiting for them at the end of the platform. Jan had ordered it to pick her son up.

As the cab swept them northwards, it began to snow, lightly at first and then in great blinding sheets. “Just as well we decided to get to Arrat House this evening,” said Paul. “We’ll probably be snowed in in the morning.”

“Perhaps the others won’t make it,” suggested Melissa hopefully.

“I’m sure they will. Jeffrey drives like a fiend. As far as I could gather, the rest were flying up to Inverness and going on by cab as well.”

Melissa relapsed into an uneasy silence. What did it matter what Paul’s mother thought of her? She wasn’t engaged to him. They hadn’t even held hands.

But her courage deserted her when they drove up to Arrat House. The house was floodlit and the snow had thinned a little, so she saw what looked like a huge mansion, formidable and terrifying.

The taxi driver said bitterly he would need to spend the night in the village. No hope of getting back to Inverness.

A manservant – a manservant! thought Melissa – came out of the house and took their bags and they followed him in. The suffocating heat of the house struck them like a blow. The entrance hall was large and square. There was a tartan carpet on the floor and antlers and deerskins hung on the wall. Two tartan-covered armchairs, a different tartan from the carpet, stood in front of a blazing log fire.

They followed the manservant up the stairs. He opened a bedroom door and put their bags into it. “You’d better find a separate room for Miss Clarke, Enrico,” said Paul.

“I will ask Mr Trent,” said the servant.

“Bit cheeky of him to think we were sleeping together,” said Melissa.

“You weren’t expected,” said Paul patiently. “I haven’t been here for ages. He probably thought we were married.”

Enrico returned and picked up Melissa’s suitcase and asked her to follow him. Her room turned out to be three doors away from Paul’s. It was hot but comfortable with a large double bed, a desk and chair at the window, and a low table and chair in front of the fire, but somehow impersonal, like an hotel room. Enrico murmured that she was expected in the drawing room, which was to the right of the hall. As soon as he had gone, Melissa turned off the radiators and opened the window. A howling blizzard blew in and she quickly closed it again. She found she had a private bathroom. She scrubbed the white make-up from her face and found a plain black wool dress in her suitcase. She had one pair of tights and a pair of plain black court shoes with medium heels. I look like a French tart, she thought in despair, but went along to Paul’s room, only to find he was not there.

Fighting back a feeling of dread, she went down to the drawing room.

All eyes turned to meet her. The room was covered in tartan carpet of a noisy yellow and red. The sofa and chairs were upholstered in pink brocade and the lamps about the room had pink pleated silk shades.

Her host, Mr Andrew Trent, was standing in front of the fire, leaning on a stick. He looked remarkably healthy. He had thick grey hair and a wizened, wrinkled face, small eyes, large nose, and a fleshy mouth. He looked like an elderly comedian of the old school, the kind who pinched bums and told blue jokes. He was wearing a black velvet jacket, a lace shirt, tartan waistcoat and kilt, which revealed thin old shanks covered in tartan stockings.

Paul came forward and introduced Melissa. Melissa murmured good evening to all and found a chair in a corner. She was hungry and there were plates of sandwiches on a low table in front of the fire, but she did not dare move to get one. Which was Paul’s mother?

Titchy Gold was immediately recognizable, and the incredibly good-looking young man at her side must be Charles. The two frumps must be the arsenic-and-old-lace sisters. That left a dry stick of a man and a thin elegant woman who was glaring at Melissa as if she could not believe her eyes. She could be none other than Paul’s mother.

Melissa cowered in her corner. Why didn’t Paul join her?

Melissa had belonged to off-beat left-wing groups when at university and adopted their style of dress, not out of any political commitment but out of a working-class inferiority complex. She was actually painfully shy and tried to cover up her shyness with noisy clothes and an occasionally abrupt manner. Somehow, for a brief period, neither clothes nor shyness had troubled her at the research centre. She was too absorbed in her work. It was a strange job for someone who had previously marched in anti-nuclear protests, but she had secured an excellent physics degree and had been offered a well-paying job at the research centre and had taken it without a qualm of conscience.

A woman of Spanish appearance dressed in black entered the room. She picked up the plates of sandwiches and began to hand them round, eventually approaching Melissa’s corner. Melissa gratefully took three. The woman asked her if she would like a glass of wine and Melissa murmured that she would.

She was just biting into her first sandwich when Jan came and stood over her. “Paul hadn’t told us about you,” said Jan.

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