continued from - Twenty-Five
Harry came back with soup. She'd done more than warm the salad and stir it in. It smelled good. He roused himself.
“Do you know Thorncombe Hall?” he asked, taking a bowl.
“Where that odd couple live? Quite elderly?”
"Everyone does," said Harry, dipping bread. "Round here. Sheep in the house. Dirt everywhere. Senile."
He was defensive. Harry looked up, surprised, so he tried to sound neutral.
“Do you remember my friend Rosemary?”
“Their daughter. As bad as them - except boring instead of daft. Don't know what's worse. She tore at a piece of bread and smiled grimly. Married that weed Robert. I never understood what you saw in her.”
Stephen felt something slip.
Robert wasn't a weed.
“You knew she was from there?”
“Went to school with her. Would you like coffee after?”
He frowned. He hadn’t expected this. He could have talked through the hatch but he was too disconcerted to speak. And tired. He wondered how much dust mattered to paintings. After all, most old paintings were older than most old people. Perhaps they weren't as sensitive as he'd imagined.
“You were friends?” he asked, when she came back and handed him a mug and a small piece of curved wood to put it on. She didn’t want rings on her floor.
He wished tiredness wasn't making him irritable; annoyed. But it was. He was irritated. Annoyed. Ruffled. Profoundly so. Rosemary might not be exciting but her predictability reassured him. Robert wasn't exciting either. True. And he wasn't interested in art, perhaps not even as an investment, so it was no wonder he didn't impress Harry. But, to Stephen, he was safe anchorage. He might never have gone to America if it weren't for Robert and Rosemary. All the time he was away, he'd imagined them doing the same old things . . . getting up, going to work, complaining about the post. Apart from Harry, they were the only ones who, for him, counted as 'family'.
Maybe she was jealous. Was that it? Stephen smiled indulgently and his good humour returned. Most of Harry's family were in Sri Lanka. Her mother included. She came to stay from time to time but her father, her English father, was dead. So Stephen told her about his time in America and his trip round England and made her smile and wound up with the invitation to tea at Thorncombe and how Camellia had fainted and how he'd gone back the next day . . . . .
Which brought them to Rosemary again.
"And you know her!" It was disconcerting.
“ ‘Know of her’ would be better," Harry said, coolly. "We've not seen each other since we left school. We don’t have much in common.”
“But what a set of coincidences!” said Stephen, trying to breathe life into the situation. “First I discover them. They turn out to be Rosemary’s parents. And now you say you went to school with her.”
“Not really. You stopping off for Church in Thorncombe - that was chance." She stacked the bowls and mugs onto trays, ready to be taken back to the cafe. "But once you'd done that . . . everyone who travels through gets invited to The Hall because no-one from round here will go near them. And as for school - if your parents have the money, that's where you go. Listen,” she said, growing more animated. “Rosemary is a pain and snob. She almost destroyed them. If she’s decided to come back, that’s great. But don't think she'll have changed. She's not the type. She’ll see the sheep are still there and leave. That's it.”
Quite. That was the point. Precisely. Stephen was getting desperate. Nothing was arranged and Harry had gone into one of her rants.
“People live with animals all over the world,” she said, slamming the rejected tomatoes onto the hatch so hard that they bounced out of the bowl and ran around loose on the floor. “They aren't indoors all the time . . . and, as for cats . . . ." She began to potter around distractedly, looking for stray tomatoes. “But there'd be animals there alright, in the house. Pigs, chickens, goats, all sorts. Depending where you are. In and out of the house. Under it in some places.” She picked up the last tomato. “If Rosemary had stayed around, maybe it wouldn't have got so bad. But she didn't. And no-one can stand it now. She won't stay, Stephen, she won't.”
"Except you, it seems." Harry smiled. "Well, good for you." (This was ambiguous. She was still cross.) "So, " (Stephen held his breath) "if you want to commute from here while you help them clean up, you can. But you’ll have to sleep in the lift. And you'll have to take these down to be washed up first."
* * * * *
To continue - Twenty-Seven
For the post before this - Twenty-Five