The next day, Stephen waited until it was almost dark before he went to Thorncombe. He wanted to make sure he wouldn't arrive until close to the end of The Visit. It would be good to see Rosemary and Robert again - and the girls - but he thought he'd better wait till they were all back in Clapham before they had their own, special re-union. This one was for Hugh and Camellia. He'd sent a postcard, giving them Harry's address and phone number. And he'd mentioned that he'd bumped into Hugh and Camellia at Church and that he'd call by briefly on Saturday - he hoped they wouldn't find this an intrusion. Perhaps they'd let him know? But they'd neither phoned nor written. Maybe they thought he'd take it as read that they'd be glad to see him. It was odd though. Disappointing. Maybe the card never arrived?
Most days, now, he walked into The Hall un-announced, generally through the back door and straight into the kitchen, but formality, he thought, would be more appropriate this afternoon so he rang the front door bell instead - and waited.
And waited . . . . . .
He rang it again.
It clanged. Loud. Un-missable.
He expected to hear the drawing room door open. Voices. Cressida and Cornellia rushing to meet him.
Perhaps not. Three years is a long time when you're growing up.
He rang again.
The drawing room door was open but no-one was there. The fire was old; sinking into its embers. The standard lamp shed a gentle pool of light onto an open book and Camellia's knitting. Oscar was asleep on a sofa. There was an iron kettle in the hearth and an abandoned tea tray on a side table. But no people. No Hugh. No Camellia. No Rosemary. No Robert. No children.
He went through to the kitchen - which was equally quiet. Very, very still. Even Hugh and Camellia were still - though they were there - sitting in arm chairs at the side of the room and half hidden by boxes; their feet resting on drifts of newspaper. But all they did was to raise heavy eyes long enough to see who had come in - then they lowered them back and carried on staring at the floor.
Stephen took an upright chair from beside the kitchen table, carried it over and placed it between them.
He sat. Waited. Still nothing.
"They came then?" His voice cracked. It was as if he hadn't used it for years.
"They want us to go into a home." Camellia's voice was blank. Bleak.
Hugh still looked down.
Stephen felt his muscles go rigid; a snarl in his stomach.
He watched their faces. Backwards and forwards he looked. They'd grown old. Their shoulders drooped. Their hands rested loosely on the arms of their chairs.
"A home?" His mouth didn't want to loose the words.
"The brochure's on the table," Hugh said. His voice was harsh, rusted, bitter, grating. "They've picked one out for us They say it's a good one. Round the corner from them. By the common. We could see them more. Quite often."
"The children could visit us, sometimes," said Camellia. "On their way home from school. That's what they said."
"So they won't have to worry about us," said Hugh. "They said that too. When we are in safe hands; 'fed' and 'warm' and 'cared for'."
"They say the cooking's good," said Camellia. "It's not brought in." A little giggle burst out of her. "They say there's a resident cook. Apparently that's good. They should be commended for having one. And a kitchen. Apparently that's a plus too."
Stephen took the giggle as a clue.
"You're joking!" he exclaimed, much relieved. "May I put the kettle on? I saw that metal contraption you've got over the fire in the drawing room, Camellia."
"The blacksmith made it," she said, standing. "I'll do it. He brought it in this morning - just in time - so we could make tea without having to come in here. It works well too."
"It's one of those things," said Hugh, rising to his feet and stretching. "If you live in a big house, you can get things done quickly - things which would usually take weeks - like trivets. People may not like you - but they'll do things."
"It's a bit like being the Queen," said Camellia, smiling; going over to the AGA.
But it wasn't a very good smile.
Not a real one.
"We're not joking," said Hugh, turning back to Stephen. "Look, there's the brochure. There on the table." His voice shook with rage and disappointment. "Look at it, read it. What d'you make of that then?"
Stephen went over. Noted the name. The address. Turned the pages. Saw it was glossy, that there were pictures. But his eyes wouldn't work properly and he couldn't read. He put it back on the table.
"Where are the cats?" he asked, suddenly noticing there were only two, a stripy one and a ginger one.
"They've gone to a refuge," said Camellia. "The tabby's 'Octopus' and the ginger one's 'Rabbit'. We kept them because we remembered their names."
"The vet says it's a good one," said Hugh. "The refuge."
"Where they will be cared for and fed," said Camellia, in a sing-song voice, sliding the kettle onto the hob. "We don't need to worry. They'll be found good homes. The lady who took them said so."
"The one's they don't kill on the way," said Hugh. "Put to sleep. Put out of their misery. Would you like toast? They weren't here long and didn't eat but the sandwiches will have gone dry. They walked in, gave us this," he picked up the brochure, flapped it in the air and slammed it back down on the table; "warmed their hands at our fire and left."
Stephen wondered if he should be frightened. He'd never seen Hugh like this.
"So what did you say?"
"We said," said Camellia - and she glanced at Hugh.
"We said," said Hugh - smiling awkwardly back.
"That we'd do it!" they said.
They were loud. Triumphant.
Then they reached for each other's hands and laughed.
For the post before this - Thirty
For the next post - Thirty-Two