carpets and pink lamps. Yuk!”

“I would have thought,” said Paul in a thin voice, “that any female sporting pink hair and combat boots did not know the meaning of taste. Mother said…”

Melissa stood up. She told Paul and his mother to go and perform impossible anatomical acts on themselves and stormed out.

She went up to her room and sat on the end of the bed and stared bleakly about her. She had a longing for her mother, to put her head down on that aproned bosom which always seemed to smell of onions and cry her eyes out.

The door opened and Paul walked in. “What do you want?” demanded Melissa.

He sat down on the end of the bed next to her and blinked at her owlishly. “I just wanted to say I liked your hair,” he said, taking her hand. “You’ve washed all that gel out of it and now it looks like pink feathers.”

“Did your mother give you permission to say that?”

“Come off it, Melissa. I’m a bit on edge. This is all wrong, you know. I’d been working up courage to ask you out since I first saw you. It was your eyes, I think, so large and grey. We should have gone out for dinner and…and talked, but here we are. I don’t really want to talk about Mother. Except to point out that it’s easier to love than to be loved. She is very possessive. My father was a quiet, unambitious man. I think she divorced him to marry Jeffrey because she wanted nothing but the best for me – best school, best university. I…I’m glad I’m free in a way now and that I’ve got my own place and work I like. You wouldn’t know anything about that. I mean, about being shy and burying yourself in your work. You’ve probably got lots of friends.”

“Not really,” said Melissa. With a burst of rare candour, she added, “I’m a terrible snob, really. I’m so ashamed of my working-class background that I adopt poses. I’m shy, too. I wasn’t even a good left-winger. I’m not really interested in any politics. I just went along with it at university because it gave me a role to play. So when I joined the atomic research centre, I dropped all my old acquaintances. They were very excited at first about me having the job and saying I could give them inside information and I got frightened and didn’t see them again. So we’re very alike in a way.”

He carefully removed his glasses and put them in his pocket. He took her by the shoulders and deposited a clumsy kiss on her lips. Melissa wrapped her arms around him and kissed him back.

“Wow,” he said shakily. He turned brick-red and fumbled in his pocket for his glasses and put them on. He walked to the window and looked out, and then he gave an exclamation. “Come here! Look at this!”

Melissa joined him. Down below, Enrico was making his way out of the courtyard on skis.

“Can you ski?” asked Paul. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I can.”

“Ever done any cross-country skiing?”

“Yes, I went on holiday once to a ski resort in the French Alps, one of these cheap student trips.”

Paul’s eyes blazed with excitement. “We could ask Enrico if he’s got another pair and if we can borrow them. Then we’ll pack up what we need. There’s a couple of old rucksacks in a cupboard in the games room. We’ll just take off. I’ll get a map. We could even go across country to Inverness if we start very early in the morning and the weather stays clear. What do you say?”

“You mean, get out of here? I’d love it.”

“We won’t tell anyone. We’ll just send the skis back when we get to Inverness with the British Rail door-to- door delivery service. Everyone will think we’re going off for a day’s skiing. Let them all stay here and suck up to the old man if they want!”

¦

“As soon as the roads clear, we must get out of here,” said Angela Trent to her sister.

“Is that wise?” asked Betty. “I mean, Dad can be very quirky. He pays us an annual allowance, but he could stop that any time he felt like it – and worse. He could leave us nothing in his will. We’ve never worked at anything. We’re too old to start now.”

There was a light ping from the phone extension. Angela picked it up. “It’s working again,” she said. “That’s something anyway. I don’t think I can stand much more of this, Betty.”

“Well, I don’t like it,” snapped Betty, “but there is no way I am leaving the field clear for the others. Have you noticed how Charles and that Titchy girl are playing up to Dad?”

“Yes,” said Angela with a frown. “Something’s got to be done about that pair. Dad’s stopped playing tricks on Titchy and she’s making goo-goo eyes at him and he’s loving it.”

“I’ll think of something,” said Betty. “You’re all talk and no do, Angela.”

“And you’re all bitch, bitch, bitch.”

The sisters fell to squabbling, although Angela was half-hearted about it. She was thinking about Titchy.

When Betty pointed out that Angela was badly in need of a shave, Angela used that as an excuse to storm out. She went quietly along the corridor and opened the door to Titchy’s room, in the same way as everyone else at Arrat House had quickly learned to open doors – standing well back for a few moments after she did so. The room was empty.

She walked in and shut the door behind her. She opened the wardrobe and stood looking at Titchy’s array of gorgeous dresses, dresses which Titchy had paid a fortune for, knowing that her fortune lay more in how she looked than in any acting ability.

They all looked like tart’s clothes to Angela, so she studied the labels and finally selected five that bore the name of a famous couture house. She extracted a razor blade from her pocket that she had taken from her toilet- bag while rowing with Betty and got to work.

Titchy went up to dress for dinner. She liked making an appearance. She took out a low-cut scarlet silk chiffon dinner gown and laid it on the bed. After a bath and change of underwear, she wriggled into the gown. All her couture models were taken to a dressmaker and then fitted tightly on to her body. With a faint sigh, the dress fell from her and lay on the floor.

With trembling hands she picked it up. The seams had been neatly sliced. Only a few threads had been left to hold it together.

Hate for old Mr Trent boiled up in her. She had played up to him to please Charles. She had made eyes at the old fright and had only giggled when he had felt her bottom.

She searched frantically through her other dresses. Four had been similarly treated.

They were all gathered in the drawing room before dinner when Titchy marched in, an armful of dresses over her arm. She flung them down in front of Mr Trent and screamed, “You miserable old fart. That’s hundreds of pounds of my best clothes you’ve ruined, you senile old fruit.”

In all her amazement, Melissa nonetheless noted that Titchy had dropped her breathy Marilyn Monroe act and looked as hard as steel. Mr Trent’s startled cry of ‘I had nothing to do with it’ went ignored by the angry actress.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get out of here, but I’m going to manage it somehow,” raged Titchy. “I’ll send you the bill when I get to London. Who the hell do you all think you are anyway? Parasites, that’s what you are. But I work for my money. “Be nice to the old man,” says Charles, so I have to put up with insane jokes and your dirty old man’s hands fumbling at me. You can keep your money-bags. Stuff the lot of you!”

There was a deathly silence when she left. Then Paul began to laugh. “Don’t you see how right she is?” he cried.

“Paul!” said Jan furiously. “Remember where you are.”

She looked uneasily at Mr Trent. He had sat impassive during Titchy’s tirade. Now he looked slowly around the room, his old eyes glittering in a reptilian way. Melissa shuddered. Tomorrow she and Paul would be far away. Hang on to that thought.

To their surprise, Titchy appeared at the dinner table, icily calm. It was a silent meal. Mr Trent sat brooding at the head of the table, his eyes occasionally travelling from one face to the other.

They filed back to the drawing room afterwards. Everyone longed to escape from the heavy atmosphere but it was as if the power of the old man’s personality was keeping them prisoner.

Then Charles whispered to Titchy, “Come outside. We need to talk.”

“Very well,” said Titchy. “But it won’t do you any good.”

Wrapped up warmly, she and Charles went outside into the courtyard. It was a bright night with a hard frost.

“Titchy,” pleaded Charles, “don’t go. There’s no way you can leave yet.”

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