Nell was in luck. Her rather peremptory knock at the front door to the Dennys’ chalet brought the man of the house himself to answer it.
‘Afternoon,’ gasped Nell, for she was out of breath with walking so fast, but she only had half an hour or so before she would be missed. ‘Susie…is she…I mean…’ She took a deep breath and steadied herself. ‘What’s happened to her? Where’s she gone?’
It wasn’t until she had panted out her request that she looked at him properly and realised that, perhaps, her abrupt greeting had been somewhat wanting in tact.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘Oh my goodness, I’m sorry.’
Tristan Denny blinked, slowly, rubbed a hand over his bloodshot eyes and gestured wordlessly for her to enter.
‘Will you take tea?’ he asked as he led her to the salon, and his voice seemed even more peculiar than usual - it was a moment before Nell realised that he spoke as if reciting something he knew one ought to say, in such circumstances, that he took no interest in her comfort but knew he must feign otherwise. Pulling herself together, she refused the offer of tea and, following his vague gesticulation, took a seat on the sofa.
‘Sarah is collecting Evelyn,’ he said. ‘Her father is bringing her back today.’
‘I expect you’ll be pleased to see her,’ said Nell, and he nodded.
‘Yes,’ he said, and his voice was as grey as a mud-flat. There was silence for a moment, and then he spoke again.
‘I know nothing,’ he said. ‘I know nothing of where she is, what she is doing. She…I…’ He rubbed weary hands over his eyes and sighed. ‘She left the very moment term ended, on the day which followed the party, and all she left behind was her painting - the one she did of Evelyn. My birthday present.’
It hung upon the far wall, opposite his armchair. Nell glanced at it, nodded a fleeting approval and turned back to him, hoping he would tell her more. He looks older somehow, she thought. So tired…
‘Did something happen?’ she asked. He was still gazing up at that portrait, face inscrutable, but after a few moments he leaned his head back against the antimacassar.
‘A great many things,’ he said, and closed his eyes.
He was silent for so long that Nell began to wonder whether he had fallen asleep, but then he blinked and looked at her.
‘We have both lost her,’ he said. ‘You loved her, I think?’
‘Not…quite like that,’ said Nell, wondering how much he knew, how discreet Susie had been about her past. ‘But she is one of my dearest friends. I did love her - do love her,’ she corrected herself, as she realised her abuse of the past tense (Susie must be alive somewhere - she couldn’t possibly be dead! There was too much vitality in her for that). ‘But I don’t think I love her in quite the way that you do,’ she added, and he let out a breath that might have been a laugh.
‘I will never love another.’
‘You don’t know…’
The silence that followed was almost terminal. Nell could not think of a way to extract herself and Mr Denny was not helping in the slightest; his eyes were open and staring into the middle distance, somewhere to the left of her head, and it was taking almost all of her strength of will not to turn around to see whether he had fixed them upon anything in particular. Small talk, in such a situation, was impossible, but so was simply rising and leaving, with him sitting there, looking like that…the poor soul - oh, she had warned Susie, she had known all along how he would suffer, when Love finally left him, as she had known it would…no use asking if a forwarding address had been left - he clearly knew nothing more than what he had already told her. Oh, that wench - to leave him so wretched - it was cruel, too cruel! If she hadn’t been so fond of Susie and concerned about her welfare, she might have hated her at that moment.
And then there came the sounds of the front door being unlocked and Nell watched a transformation take place, as the sorrow smoothed out of Tristan Denny’s face and was replaced by a calm, measured, controlled pleasantness, which became almost a smile as he rose to his feet.
The reason why was immediately clear - the salon door opened and in burst a small whirlwind of excitement - brown arms and legs, freckled face, hair bleached by the Portuguese sun, Evelyn Keane clattered across the wooden floor in her outdoor shoes and flung herself into his arms with a shriek of ‘Uncle Tristan!’
Nell watched as Mr Denny swung her up into the air, round in a circle, and then hugged her close, so close he might have suffocated her, only she never noticed, she was clinging back so hard.
‘Oh, my darling girl!’
Sarah Denny followed the little girl into the salon, smiling to see her brother smiling, though the smile fell away in her surprise at seeing Nell on the sofa. Nell stood up, feeling even more like an intruder than she had during the awful silence.
‘I went fishing in the sea!’ Evelyn was exclaiming. ‘And we went to Lisbon and we ate squid and sardines and I saw a shark, a real shark! And, and, and Rafaela’s brother has a chameleon as a pet! I saw it go brown and green and red and, and the beaches are all sandy, no stones at all, and we went swimming every day, and, and, and can I have a chameleon? Please? I’ll look after it! And…oh! I’ve got you a present…’
She wriggled out of his arms and ran off to fetch it, and Nell took advantage of the distraction to make her escape, offering a polite greeting to a rather bemused Sally as she slipped out of the door and away back to school.
Con was waiting for her in her room when she got in.
‘No idea,’ she said, in answer to the question in her eyes. ‘She’s vanished, and that seems to be that. Even Mr Denny doesn’t know where she is.’
‘You mean she’s…’
‘Broken it off with him? It seems like it, to look at him. Oh, Con,’ she said, sinking down onto the bed beside her. ‘I never saw a man so wretched - women, yes, but never a man. To tell the truth, he looks a little like he did when he was so…unwell at the end of last term.’
‘Poor soul,’ murmured Con, and Nell grunted her assent.
‘Daft as a brush,’ she said, ‘but with real feelings.’
‘A brush with feelings,’ she said, and Nell’s face lit up with amusement.
‘Not the best analogy,’ she agreed, and chuckled, but her face sobered rapidly. ‘Though, Con, it doesn’t seem right to laugh about it. Oh dear,’ she groaned, putting her hands to her temples. ‘I can see that this year is not going to be anything like as jolly as the last.’
‘It’s better in some ways,’ said Con. ’At least, for me it is.’
And she smiled at Nell, and Nell smiled back and reached for her, and for a short while they were back in the Dolomites, where they had spent such a glorious summer, and not at the school at all.
Author's Chapter Notes:
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