All good things must come to an end– but having epilogues helps one put it off longer.
See you back here tomorrow for give aways and gaiety in honor of the birthday (bookstore day?) of The Temptation of the Night Jasmine!
Without further ado, I give to you the very last installment of That Selwick Christmas Novella….
The train ride home always feels colder and longer than the train ride there—wherever the there may be. It wasn’t quite eight by the time I made it back from Uppington Hall, but it felt much later.
I was chilled to the bone from the long ride in the unheated train and an even longer wait on the even colder platform. I had left Uppington Hall at four-thirty. That light dusting of snow had wreaked havoc on the train schedule. Admittedly, it doesn’t take much to wreak havoc on the British train system. A fallen leaf, a dropped Mars bar wrapper, and, whoosh, there goes the train timetable.
The dingy white townhouses that fronted Craven Hill Gardens looked even dingier than usual in the watery light of the streetlamps as I trudged home from Paddington Station. Bulbous black garbage bags clustered around the base of the dumpsters in the center of the square, their plastic surface shimmering greasily in the lamplight. It was a far cry from marble halls and clusters of mistletoe.
Confronting the reality of modern existence, the world of two hundred years ago, the world preserved in Uppington Hall’s Christmas re-enactment, seemed like Clara’s dream in The Nutcracker, an impossible fantasy.
Despite the promises of the woman at the desk, the re-enactors hadn’t been much help in finding out more about the Uppingtons in whom I was interested. They had learned their script from a later period. They were able to discourse fluently about the Selwicks who had been in their teens and twenties in 1820, Lord Peregrine, Lady Caroline, and Lord Theo. There had been portraits of the three of them—Lady Caroline with blond hair and a very firm jaw, her expression rather reminiscent of that of her Grandmother Uppington, Lord Peregrine a sturdy young man with dark hair and shrewd eyes, and Lord Theo in artistic dishevelment, doing a determined Lord Byron imitation—but I had been more interested in an earlier painting, showing the older two as round cheeked cherubs, beaming beatifically down at a plump baby kicking his legs in a basket set between them.
One of the re-enactors, the only fulltime employee of the lot, had recalled something about an embarrassing incident during one Uppington Christmas gathering, where a neighbor’s daughter had been caught in a compromising situation involving French spies.
“There was a spy in the family, you know,” she said seriously. “Rather famous in his day. The Purple Gentian.”
When I expressed interest, she directed me to a display case in the hall, where history’s flotsam had been preserved under glass. Next to a slightly bent quizzing glass and a very badly embroidered handkerchief was a page from the Kentish Crier of January, 1804, open to what looked to be the local gossip column, judging from all the arch references to people identified only by their initials.
A certain Lady J—, it appeared, had abused the hospitality of a local Family of Distinction by consorting with Agents of a Foreign Power. Was it due to Disappointment in Love? Did she seek Revenge for the recent marriage of a certain Former Admirer? The Kentish Crier left it to the reader to decide. There was a decidedly crumpled look to the page, as though someone had balled it up and thrown it across the room.
I had a very good idea who Lady J— might be. I wasn’t quite so sure as to whom had done the crumpling and throwing. It might have been any number of volatile characters. I suspected that Amy had quite a good throwing arm. So had Lady Uppington, at that.
I would have to see if I could find microfilm copies at the British Library. With any luck, there might even have been a follow-up article. But that would have to wait until after vacation. My plane theoretically left at three in the afternoon. I hoped it would. I’d been stranded in Terminal Four before.
Blowing my nose on a crumpled tissue, I shouldered my way through the front door of the narrow, white building that housed my flat. The radiator was making its usual friendly burping noises, heat and wet combining to create a smell like old mold.
Wiping my feet on the dirty, dark blue carpet, I leafed through the mail that had been left on the radiator in the hall. There wasn’t much for me that day, just the annual holiday card from the head mistress of my old school and a catalogue of books from Chicago University Press. Most of my friends hadn’t managed to figure out my English address, but the purveyors of catalogues seemed to have no such difficulty.
The light had burned out in the stairwell again. Either these were the shortest burning bulbs in human history, or someone was pinching them for personal use. I suspected the latter, but there was no way to prove it.
Clutching the railing with one hand, the catalogue crinkling under my arm, I picked my way downstairs in the darkness. If I were lucky, maybe Frasier would be on. Or Law and Order. There’s nothing like living in another country to make you suddenly appreciate American television. My stomach rumbled hollowly beneath my coat, reminding me that Cadbury fruit and nut bar does not a dinner make. Hitching the catalogue higher up under my arm, I fumbled in my bag for my keys and tried to remember if I had any Sainsbury frozen dinners left.
Someone had gone to the take away. There was a lovely curry smell in the air that made my stomach growl in angry reproach. Perhaps I should have stopped for something on the way home. At the time, I had been so intent on getting my frozen limbs inside that it hadn’t even occurred to me to think of other creature comforts. Now that I had begun to defrost, my body had time to remember other things, like food. I grimaced. There had to be a can of soup in my pantry, at least. Maybe some cereal?
Before I could get my key in the lock, the door opened of its own accord. I followed its momentum inwards, doing a very undignified stumble as someone grabbed my shoulders to keep me from going flying.
“What are you doing here?” I gasped, like any good Gothic heroine, blinking in the bright light of my foyer. Wincing, I touched my tongue to the top of my palate. I hat bitten it when I fell. Hard. I scowled at Colin. “Shouldn’t you be in Sussex?”
“I decided I would rather be here?” he said. I must have looked pretty fearsome, red-nosed, teary-eyed and scowling. Not exactly a picture to cherish in one’s heart during one’s days apart. He added, in the tone of one dangling some nice red meat in front of an angry lion, “I brought us some take away.”
Stepping back, he made room for me to squeeze past, out of the tiny corridor that doubled as both foyer and kitchenette and into my main living space, a rectangle of a room with a small round table, two twin beds pushed together to make a double, a wobbly desk, and very little else. A travel alarm clock balanced on the suitcase that doubled as a night table.
He had set out two plates on the scarred plastic tablecloth, two sets of cutlery, two wine glasses. A bottle of Greek red was open and “breathing”, and the take out containers stood open in the center of the table. The curry had obviously cooled sometime ago, but I could feel the cockles of my heart warming, like an English muffin in the toaster oven.
“You didn’t have to wait for me,” I said, going all gooey. “You should have eaten.”
Wow. A surprise return to my side; wine; and untouched food. He was clearly going for a Boyfriend of the Year award.
“I didn’t think you would be that long,” said Colin practically. Fair enough. As I shrugged out of my coat and scarf—fortunately, it was the scarf he had given me—he asked, “Is the BL open that late?”
“I wasn’t at the BL. I went to… a museum.” Call me silly, but I was reluctant to admit to having tracked his decedents to Uppington Hall. “It took me a while to get home. The Tube was acting up again.”
Fortunately, Colin was concerned with more important matters. He prodded the chicken tikka masala with a fork. “It may need a little….”
“Microwave,” I said definitively, sweeping the container out from under his fork and bustling it off to the foyer/kitchen.
Colin followed along behind, plonking the second container down on the counter. While I rummaged for microwave safe bowls to dump the food into for heating, he roamed back into the bedroom. The remote control clicked and a voice announced more snowfall in the north before it was abruptly replaced by another voice, speaking in hushed and reverent tones about a snooker shot. Oh dear, not the snooker. Fortunately, the channel flipped again. The strident voice of Bart Simpson could be heard in the next room.
Upending the first carton and scraping the sides with a spoon, I reflected on how amazingly stereotypical it all was, me fidgeting with the microwave, Colin playing with the television. Funny, how quickly you can go from those breathless early stages of dating to placid domesticity.
I grinned to myself as I stowed the first bowl in the microwave and set the machine in motion. Well, maybe not quite that placid.
“What made you decide to skip the Sussex thingy?” I called from the kitchen as our chicken tikka spat and sizzled.
Colin wandered into the doorway, one eye on the revolving plate that held his dinner. “I wanted to spend the time with you.”
This admirable sentiment was marred by the unrepentant shriek of the microwave, which cared not for such petty human affairs.
“How sweet,” I said, carefully transferring the bowl to the counter and shoving the other one into the microwave in its place. Too sweet. Colin was a wonderful human being, but he was also human. And male. Sweet generally wasn’t in his line. I programmed the microwave for two minutes and jabbed the start button. As the round dish began its methodical revolution, I leaned back against the counter and eyed my boyfriend suspiciously. “What’s really up?”
Colin clasped his arms behind his back, the picture of wounded innocence. “Isn’t wanting to see you enough?”
It was a decidedly lukewarm attempt. He knew the game was up. So did I. “No,” I said firmly.
“Mmm,” said Colin, looking off to the side. I could almost see the little thought bubble over his head, like one of those old Peanuts cartoons. He was thinking, If I kiss her now, can I distract her enough that she’ll forget the question, or will that interfere with the preparation of my dinner? In a determinedly casual tone, he said, “I have to go away for a bit.”
“To Italy, yes?” He had already told me that he was going to be spending the week between Christmas and New Year’s with his mother and stepfather in Italy. I gathered that this was in the nature of an olive branch to his mother, but that was pure reading between the lines on my part. Colin didn’t like to talk about his family. Not the live ones, at any rate. He had become slightly more forthcoming about the long dead ones, which was quite useful when I was in grad student mode, but less useful in girlfriend mode.
We had already discussed the Italy trip. It made calling schedules slightly more complicated, but it really wasn’t much worse than calling England. It simply meant working around his family members.
Colin developed an intense fascination with the rotation of the microwave. “Not just Italy.”
The microwave let out a long squawk but I let it go. “What do you mean?”
“I’m going to be away for a bit longer than I thought. Just some… business matters. Do you think the saag is done?” he asked hopefully, reaching for the microwave door.
I made a belated move to intercept him. “How long?”
“Not too long,” he said vaguely, neatly evading me and carrying the steaming bowl to the table. “Just a few weeks.”
“A few weeks?”
Wonderful, scented steam was wafting up from the lamb saag. My traitor stomach rumbled.
Colin poised a spoon above the bowl. “Lamb saag or chicken tikka?” he asked.
He was cunning, that one. I couldn’t deny it. “Both. How many weeks? Where are you going?”
“I’ll be back by the end of January,” Colin said cheerfully, ladling a whopping portion of chicken tikka masala onto my plate. “Naan?”
The loud crinkling of the foil in which it had been wrapped effectively forestalled further questions.
I gave him a narrow-eyed look, a look that said, I know what you’re up to.
Colin smiled blandly back. “Onion or garlic?”
“Onion,” I said, with a sigh. “No, garlic. Oh, whatever.”
He tidily tore off a half portion of each and gave me both. I looked gloomily at the little pile of food on my plate. Beware what you wish for…. Perfect boy, perfect food, and I was a perfect idiot. I couldn’t decide whether I would be an idiot to interrogate him further (I could just see the Cosmo headline, “Don’t Crowd Him!”) or an idiot not to interrogate him. Either way, I was an idiot.
Piling saag on his own plate, Colin cannily seized advantage of my momentary silence to change the subject. “Which museum did you go to today?”
Fine, so maybe he wasn’t the only one with a secret or two. “How much naan would you like?” I asked.
He gave me a narrow-eyed look.
I crinkled the foil.
“Are you trying to make a point?” he asked darkly.
I blithely seized the opportunity and ran with it. I raised both eyebrows over the silver expanse of foil. “What point do you think I’m making?”
“Mmph,” said Colin.
There’s nothing like a guilty conscience to do your work for you. The only question was, what was he feeling guilty about? And where exactly was he going? Any why didn’t he want me to do?
Okay, so that was more than one question. But they were all part of the same family of questions: what didn’t my boyfriend want me to know?
Colin reached for the wine bottle. By tacit agreement, neither of us said anything as he filled the glasses, each weighing our options and deciding to let it go. It wasn’t so much a truce as a cease fire, a temporary halting of offensives in honor of our last night together for the greater part of a month.
There were times and places for all sorts of things. Dinner, for example. And long, affectionate farewells. It seemed a shame to spoil it. Especially when it wasn’t a battle it looked like I was going to be able to win. Not at the moment, at any rate.
I wondered if Amy had had this much trouble squeezing information out of her Richard. And just why their descendant was being quite so cagey if he didn’t have anything interesting to hide.
It was enough to make one wonder.
“Shall we toast?” Colin suggested, lifting his glass and smiling at me. He smiled with his eyes as well as his lips. No matter what else was going on, what it was he wouldn’t tell me, that smile, at least, was honest.
“Yes,” I said. I lifted my wine glass in the air and looked him square in the eye. “To January.”
“To January,” Colin echoed. Our glasses clinked in mid-air, our eyes locked above them. My mysterious boyfriend was going to have more than a little bit of explaining to do. In January.
It was shaping up to be a very interesting New Year.