Chapter 3: Monday and Tuesday - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
Mrs P., in the sullen silence which, Neville thought, had become habitual since his return from China, but with an edge of apprehension which was new, served the soup and withdrew. Draco was also uncharacteristically taciturn. Neville considered breaking the silence, thought better of it, and took a spoonful of soup: a clear consommé, of sorts, with thin floating strands of something unidentifiable that looked like rice vermicelli, but had neither the same flavour or texture. He took another mouthful, savouring it thoughtfully, trying to work out whether he liked the effect or not.
And it was at that precise moment when Draco drawled, “So. Mrs P. tells me you’re having an affair with the vicar.”
He couldn’t help it. Soup spluttered in a fine spray all over the tablecloth, the bread basket, and anything else within a three foot radius of his mouth. He coughed helplessly, eyes streaming, as his lungs fought to expel the soup he had involuntarily inhaled. When he came back to awareness of his surroundings he found a glass of water hovering at his elbow. He swallowed frantically, looking across the glass’s rim to his lover.
Draco’s expression was unreadable; his pose open, clearly inviting Neville to respond.
His head whirled; he seemed to have suddenly been abandoned in the midst of quick sands where he previously believed there to have been solid ground. Any route out was potentially treacherous.
And what reason has he ever been given to trust or believe in anyone or anything? And, that being so, what argument can one ever use in one’s defence against such stories?
“Well,” he choked feebly, “And what did you tell her?”
Draco’s face was utterly unsmiling. “I told her that we were a ménage à trois, and that the only reason the vicar hadn’t yet moved into the Manor was that he wasn’t sure he could get a dispensation from the Bishop to be non-resident at the vicarage in the circumstances.” He paused; one elegant hand hovered in the air above a bread roll, before he evidently thought better of it.
“Oh,” he added casually, with a dismissive gesture, “And I also told her that if I ever again heard of her spreading, listening to, acting on or believing gossip about Me or Mine, that she’d be trying to retrieve her limbs from all the neighbouring counties.”
Neville gulped. “And she said?”
Draco shrugged. “She said that I wasn’t half the wizard my father was, and that if he couldn’t do it, she’d be surprised if I could bring it off.” There was a pause. “Though this is Vesiga soup. It takes four hours - even magically - hand-extracting the backbones out of sturgeons to produce it. Usually I only get it on my birthday, and, even then only about every third year. I suspect, therefore, she may think I’m more of a proper chip off the old block than she claims.”
Looking across the table into those cold grey eyes Neville could easily believe it.
He took a deep breath, and stretched his hands across the tablecloth, taking Draco’s cool non-responsive fingertips into his own grasp.
“Look, you fuckwit,” he said, ” I care massively about you. The three years we’ve been together have been bloody fantastic despite all the shit that follows us around. And - you know - when Eustace and his little schemes landed me in hell you followed me right in there and pulled me out of it. And you carried on bloody well pulling me out of it every day for the next three months. You think I don’t appreciate that? After all, you even saved the life of your worst enemy so I wouldn’t end up in Azkaban for killing him.”
The drawling light voice was still cool, but the fingers between his palms trembled.
“It was a legitimate duel, even if you did try to take things further than originally intended once you lost your rag. I think, legally, they’d have had difficulty doing you for that one.”
He made his voice extremely dry. “I think, practically, they’d have had a damn good try.”
A ghost of a smile flickered around the corners of Draco’s lips. “Anyway, you needn’t count that one. It wasn’t the reason I did it, but can you imagine a better revenge on anyone for being a complete tosser than thinking of them walking around knowing they owe their life to their worst enemy and that he’s shagging someone who bloody nearly succeeded in bringing off something the Dark Lord tried and failed to achieve on a regular annual schedule for the best part of seven years?”
Neville thought about that one for a moment. “You know, love, knowing you that’s almost capable of being true. Anyway, why the hell could you think I might risk all that we’ve got going for us just to shag someone I don’t fancy, who I’m pretty sure is straight, and who presumably would have massive moral scruples about the whole thing?”
Draco’s eyes widened. “Oh - I never for one moment thought you were having an affair with him.”
Neville’s stomach lurched back to somewhere approximating its proper place. Draco withdrew one hand from his grasp apparently for the sole purpose of making an elegant gesture in the air.
“I really don’t think you’d have been able to bring off an affair practically on my doorstep without my noticing something,” he said, “After all, I was raised by parents who looked on adultery rather like other couples look at gardening.”
He knew his eyebrows must have gone up. Draco waved his hand explanatorily.
“You know - a hobby they still have in common even when everything else has gone out of the relationship.”
His tone was light but his face was momentarily so bleak that Neville got up from his place at the table to come round to Draco’s side in order to put his arm around him.
“Look, you shouldn’t let it get to you. We know there’s always been gossip about us in the village.”
“That’s not usually sufficient to provoke my cook into trying to poison you.”
“To be fair, that salad wasn’t actually poisonous. Inedible, I’ll grant you that. I got the clue when I managed to track down your copy of The Language of Plants. I gather that that salad amounted to a fairly definite statement to the effect that I’m on to you - get weaving - if you hurt him any more I’ll make you wish you’ve never been born. And obviously I couldn’t argue with someone who felt that loyal to you.”
Draco shook his head. “There are things I’ll never understand about you. So you don’t want me to offer you Mrs P.’s head on a platter?”
Neville shuddered. “Certainly not. Imagine lifting a cover and finding that looking up at you. No, I’ll go and make my peace with her after supper.”
Draco’s voice changed. “There’s something you need to do first.”
The tone was a warning; Neville felt the ground shift under his feet again.
“Tell me what you were really doing in all those meetings with the vicar.”
Neville sat down on the chair next to Draco. “Oh,” he said blankly.
His lover’s brows drew down in a frown. “Well? I know you’ve had several meetings - after all, unless it confirmed some suspicions she’d already had, Mrs P. wouldn’t listen to village gossip - though Caitlin, who does, tells me that this story really is all round the village so she’d have difficulty missing it assuming she was conscious in the first place.”
Neville drew in his breath.
“Oh, god. How rotten for Peter. I wonder if he knows.”
“If he didn’t already, he will do by now. Caitlin was going to tell him as soon as she’d finished breaking the news to me. So he’s had several hours to digest the news, I should think. And - Peter?”
He gritted his teeth. “Yes. He’s been brilliant. Look - I hoped I wouldn’t have to tell you about this bit, though Peter told me all along I should -“
He sneaked a sideways look at Draco and his heart turned over. During Recent Events he had seen people steel themselves to face death or Cruciatus with less self-evident effort. Hell, he’d steeled himself to face Cruciatus with less self-evident effort, come to think of it. He made the tone of his voice very gentle.
“You know Hermione’s report?”
Draco looked faintly baffled - and somehow reprieved, Neville thought guiltily - as though he was trying and failing to connect the concept to anything which had gone before, but glad to have his mind taken off the main event.
“Yes. It seemed a bit - short. For her. I mean, she was always famous at school for handing in at least twice the required amount of parchment -“
Neville continued rapidly on.
“Yes. Well. There’s a reason for that. I - ah - asked her not to. You see - you know how we said that the defences had been circumvented by Muggles bringing things onto the land-?”
“Well - um - we were only half right. They - ah - had taken something away, as a matter of fact.”
The voice was sharp and accusing. Neville looked at him apologetically.
“From - er - the mausoleum.”
“Oh, god.” Draco’s voice sounded as though it was coming from very far away. “So that explains what I thought I was seeing. Was seeing. I begin to understand. Everything. Including why the vicar. What - I mean, who - oh, god. Bastards. Whoever they are. I take it Hermione and you were telling the truth when you said you didn’t know who -?”
Neville nodded. “Honestly.”
Draco’s voice dropped to barely above a whisper. “But which ones?”
That, at least, he was prepared for. He had been carrying the folded piece of sermon paper around in his pocket since Peter had insisted on writing it out for him.
“If he asks you, he’s entitled to know. And I strongly advise you to tell him before he asks. Protecting people from themselves can easily turn into presumption.”
He pushed the paper across the table. Draco glanced down at it. The voice was barely a breath, now.
“Oh god. Cousin Sarah.”
Neville put his arm around his shoulders, and squeezed gently. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t know how to tell you. The - the tombs have all been put back straight, now - we had a bit of an argument with the Diocese because we didn’t know if the land was consecrated or not, and I really didn’t fancy dragging the Muggle Home Secretary into it - though actually, I’ve met his son at a party in Whalley, and judging by him at least I can’t believe his father’s such a rule-obsessed old prune as Peter was sort of implying - but Peter eventually argued the Bishop into giving us the benefit of the doubt - and he’s still hoping that someone might come forward to him about the - um - missing bits - “
Draco’s head went up sharply. “Still missing?”
He nodded, unable to find words. The slender fingers crushed the paper into a ball with sudden violence. “Bastards.”
His lover turned to face him. Neville was surprised to find Draco looking somehow unstrung: less tense than he had been.
“Don’t be. You were probably right. It’s just -” He stopped. Improbably, his lips twisted into a smile. “I suppose you couldn’t have been expected to make allowances for my hyper-active imagination.”
His eyebrows went up. “Look - if you didn’t think we were having an affair, and you didn’t suspect the real reason - what did you think I was having those meetings for?”
Uncharacteristically, Draco looked sheepish. “Well - it occurred to me that I’ve been more than usually impossible to live with recently - I thought you might reasonably be having doubts about it - and also, well, given Eustace - well, it’s obviously something that runs in your family - “
“What is?” Neville interrupted. “Having relatives who are total tossers or having relatives who ought to be in prison, but just skinned out of it by a whisker? Because you can’t talk on either count, love.”
“I didn’t mean that. I thought - I was afraid that you might be getting religious scruples on me.”
“Getting religious - You thought that because of Eustace?”
Wordlessly, Draco nodded. Neville exhaled in an exasperated way.
“Look - this is Christianity we’re talking about, not haemophilia. It isn’t an inherited condition, you know. And no, thank you very much for asking, Peter hasn’t been trying to talk me out of you. I suspect he’s bright enough to realize he wouldn’t get anywhere if he did. He’s a perfectly decent bloke who’s obviously been dropped into a rotten situation because of this foul village’s tendency to gossip at the drop of a hat. And given what you - we - owe him, we ought to think if there’s anything we can do to help him out on that one.”
Draco’s voice sounded hesitant. “Maybe Caitlin’s got some suggestions. We could call her a bit later. But - you are sure you’re happy?”
Neville looked disbelievingly at him. “What do I do to convince you? After this long?”
Draco stretched out his hand tentatively, palm-upwards, over the fine - if currently rather green-spotted - linen of the table cloth. After a pause, Neville took it, crushing the fingers tight in his grasp, almost as though the faint inhalation of discomfort, which was all Draco allowed himself to utter in response, could prove something to him. Draco’s voice was almost too low for ears to sense without magical enhancement.
“I don’t know. After all, you must be completely mad to stick around with me given all the shit you get for it.”
His lover’s tone was redolent with hurt and self-disgust, and his eyes avoided Neville’s. There was a sudden boiling up of incandescent fury that those small-minded bastards, those petty get-a-life-for-fuck’s-sake imbeciles could have caused so much pain to someone he loved so much. Had it been only his problem he would have put up with it without complaint. He hardly mattered, after all. But no-one had any right, any right on this green earth -
Blood thundered in his ears. He drew in a deep and ragged breath. Something - diffidence, good manners, gratitude - which had been choking him back for all his life, it seemed, suddenly snapped. He was light-headed with the sudden loss of restraint. He felt he was breathing pure oxygen. His voice, unexpectedly, came out deeply controlled, but with a side order of razor blades.
“OK, yes, I’m mad. Runs in the family - did none of the people who were sending the Howlers bother to include that? There’s usually a few who mention it.”
There was an appalled second of complete silence, and then Draco turned to face him fully. His face was a distraught mask of catastrophic ruin and his whole body was trembling.
“Please, no! No, please. Oh, god, I’m so sorry. Please, love, don’t -“
Abruptly it all got too much. Neville’s free hand snaked out and caught the nape of Draco’s neck, running his fingers up into the silky hair, clawing at his scalp, tilting his head up and pulling him into a hard kiss close against his body. Draco’s response was instant and frantic, his hands biting into his shoulder-blades for support, his lips fastening tightly over his own, sucking at their shared oxygen. Like a drowning man being rescued from deep water, chimed the tiny fragment of Neville’s brain that was still capable of thought.
“Yes, you fucking imbecile,” he hissed when he was able to speak again, “Of course I love you. What do you want me to do? Prove it?”
Draco’s eyes were dilated wide, his skin flushed, his breathing unsteady. A light film of sweat covered his forehead. “Yes. Now.”
Draco’s hands reaching inside his shirt to claw into his bare shoulders drew him down close again. They raced down Neville’s back, tracing patterns of fire across his nerve endings. His own caresses told him through his finger-ends far better than words could convey it the desperate need for reassurance Draco’s body was radiating. Neville’s heart was pounding as he surfaced from the second, deeper kiss. With a tremendous effort he made his voice almost steady. “Now? And let Mrs P.’s special soup get cold?”
Without letting go of him Draco stood up. His eyes were snapping sparks and his voice was ragged with passion. “Yes,” he snarled. “After all, from her point of view it’s got to look better than retrieving her shoulder-blades from the wrong side of Blandford Forum, hasn’t it?”
It was possible that there was a smart comeback to that one. But not one that Neville was able to summon up at that precise moment. Still clinging to each other, they Disapparated from the dining room.
While listening to Caitlin’s hurried explanation Peter had had a sense of curious detachment, as though the winter afternoon light shining on the village High Street was shining on some other world, one that he was seeing through the wrong end of a telescope and to which he bore no personal relationship at all. It was only when she had gone on her way that the shockwave of what he had just been told hit him.
Peter got back to the vicarage, automatically made himself a cup of tea, and then sat down at the table. The impact had been such that his hands felt as though they were shaking, even though when he looked down at them they were rock-solid around the white earthenware. He sat there for what felt like a long time before coming to a decision.
Canon Bowles, thank goodness, answered the phone within a couple of rings. The cut-glass, almost archaically precise tones on the other end of the telephone were deeply comforting. Peter outlined the situation with what he hoped sounded slightly more like calm dispassion than sheer blind panic.
“Good heavens,” Canon Bowles said in a faintly bemused way at the end of it (Peter visualised him blinking in that mild and bewildered way that had misled so many people as to the strength of the intellect behind those bland features). “And how long have you been in the parish?”
“Not quite four months,” Peter muttered.
“Tsk. And rumours that you’re having a clandestine affair with the Lord of the Manor’s boyfriend are already running rife round the village?”
“And they’re only the ones I’ve heard about,” he murmured grimly.
“Yes - hm, well, I shouldn’t imagine they’re bothering to pass on anything less juicy if that one’s the main feature, as it were. Now, in general I’d say that if the parish isn’t gossiping about the parson he isn’t being effective. However, in this precise case, I think we do need to start thinking up a strategy. Especially in this diocese, that’s just the sort of rumour that isn’t going to do you any good at all if it got to the Bishop. For all his liberal postures. Wouldn’t be so bad if it were Norwich, say. Any diocese that hosts the annual pilgrimage to Our Lady of Walsingham has to cultivate some flexibility on points like that. But not Sarum, my dear boy. And I shouldn’t imagine the Lord of the Manor’s going to be any too happy about it, either. What’s he like?”
Peter gulped. “I’ve never met him, actually.”
“Hm. Not the best of occasions to introduce oneself to a potentially influential parishioner, you know.”
Peter felt the implied criticism. “There - are reasons, actually. Not all ones I’m able to tell you. “
Canon Bowles sounded thoughtful. “You know, for gossip that damaging to be circulating about you, this fast you must have seriously upset someone.”
Canon Bowles’ voice sounded faintly testy.
“Well, this story’s clearly been made up out of whole cloth. The meetings you’ve described with this - Neville? - don’t sound to have the potential to be even mildly compromising - and believe me, in a career of over 30 years in rural parishes you develop a nose for the risks of being compromised which would make a Victorian chaperone look as relaxed as a hippy at a 60s happening. So: someone made them up. And we can safely assume that whoever did it didn’t intend to either lengthen your stay in the living or make it more enjoyable, eh? So - who have you - ah - “naffed orf” that badly?”
Peter spread his hands in a helpless gesture.
“I’m sorry, but I just haven’t the faintest idea.”
Canon Bowles evidently heard the helplessness in his voice, although he could not see the gesture. His voice suddenly sharpened up. “Peter, I take it you have at least one spare bedroom without informal ventilation in the ceiling?”
Peter grinned for the first time in what seemed like years. The state of the roof of the parsonage house had been the subject of increasingly acrimonious correspondence over his entire time in the living. The Canon had obviously kept himself as well informed as ever.
“The front spare room only leaks in the far corner, and some of the moulds are quite botanically interesting, I suspect,” he said.
“Splendid! Make up the bed for me and don’t forget to put a hot water bottle in it. I can’t possibly strategise properly without seeing the lie of the land.”
“And do try to stop worrying, dear boy. Difficult as it sounds.”
“Um, ah -“
“Put the kettle on, I’ll be right over.”
There was a click, and the line went dead.
Peter cocked his head. From outside came an unmistakable purring roar growing rapidly in intensity. He abandoned the kettle to its fate, and sprinted for the outside, just in time to see the Ducatti slither on an impossible angle of heel round the sharp left turn from the main street of the village, and into Church Lane in a spray of dead grass and flying gravel, coming to a triumphant sliding stop in front of the vicarage gate.
“Time!” snapped Canon Bowles, raising the visor of his helmet with one gauntleted hand. Peter automatically looked down at his watch.
“15:37.28 ” he responded. Canon Bowles beamed with sheer pleasure.
“Splendid! I make that nearly 4.5 minutes off the Diocesan record. Superb performance from the old girl, especially in these conditions. I thought I’d had it when I met the gritting wagon coming the other way about six miles north of Sixpenny Handley. Anyway, what about that tea?”
He undid the neck of his leather jacket, revealing the clerical collar beneath. Suppressing a smile, Peter led the way into the vicarage.
The clock on the mantelpiece showed 12.35. The wood fire in the grate was slumping into glowing aromatic coals. Suppressing a yawn, Peter topped up the claret in the two glasses. Canon Bowles gestured expansively with his pipe.
“Now, one thing I’ve never understood, Peter. How did someone with your sparkling track record end up in this parish?”
Peter tried to keep his intense interest out of his expression.
“Why do you ask, specifically? What does Malfoy Intrinsica have wrong with it that 20 other remote, poverty stricken benefices in this diocese don’t?”
Canon Bowles looked intently at him. “You mean no-one even mentioned it? Oh dear.”
Peter shrugged. “Well, my original letter from the Diocesan Secretary - the one with my removal grant and incumbency grant and such - did have a handwritten P.S - “best of British luck” - that looked as if it’d been added at the last minute, but I thought that was just someone being nice -“
“Hm. Then you wouldn’t be aware that our previous Bishop was rumoured to offer the incumbency of Malfoy Intrinsica as an alternative to a formal enquiry to - ah - certain diocesan black sheep whose behaviour had come negatively to his attention?”
Peter shook his head wordlessly. The Canon continued with some relish.
“It was said that on at least two occasions that a third way - a service revolver with one bullet in the chamber - was offered as a further option. And accepted gratefully. ” He paused, sipped at the claret, and continued meditatively, “Though one hardly likes to believe that, even of Old Sarum.”
He looked sharply at Peter. “So, Peter, what is the skeleton in your cupboard - at least as far as the Bishop’s concerned?”
Peter took a swallow of the wine, sighed, and muttered:
Canon Bowles looked suddenly enlightened. “Oh dear.” He paused. “Dear Veronica was always a trifle wild - even at six - “
He snorted. He knew his voice was sounding bitter and whiny in his own ears, but for once he simply didn’t care. “Yes, well, if the Romans had been able to field anything in the arena at Ephesus as wild as Veronica was at 18, I think Acts would have taken a markedly different turn - as would the history of the Early Christian Church, come to think of it - “
“Well, why didn’t you tell me? Or tell someone, at least?”
Peter shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. It was all so silly, and embarrassing - and I felt I ought to have dealt with the situation better - I mean, I’m the one who’s ten years older than her, and supposed to have the worldly experience and has had the training, after all - and I thought it had all blown over, anyway, when she went abroad on her gap year - and then off to University - and I didn’t know until I was halfway through my second curacy about her dropping out - and it didn’t occur to me to connect the two at all - at the time - and of course, I didn’t know anything about the on-line journal - still less that the Bishop had read it - if he did - “
Canon Bowles raised an arresting hand. “Narrative structure, my dear boy. Stream of consciousness was infinitely tedious even when done by Joyce - and personally, I think half of Finnegan’s Wake can only be explained by the prosy old Irish bore losing his glasses in mid-stream, as it were. Why don’t you begin at the beginning, go on to the end and then stop? And while I think of it, what a good job I brought a second bottle of the St Emilion. Shall I open it while you’re filling me in on the background?”
There was clearly no help for it. Peter succumbed to the sense of being taken charge of and found it curiously relaxing.
“Well,” he began.
The story was a simple one. Towards the end of his first curacy he had been introduced to Veronica, the Bishop’s daughter, who was sharing a flat with school-friends in a run-down corner of Poole, in Peter’s parish, nominally temping as a receptionist at a health centre prior to going abroad to spend her gap year working in a Southern African leper hospital.
Canon Bowles gestured elegantly. “Oh dear. Leprosy and Veronica. How manifold are the afflictions of the poor.”
Peter grinned. “Doubtless that was why the Lord arranged to lighten the burdens of the Third World by having Veronica caught in possession before she actually made it to the plane. The Bishop intervened, of course, and she got off with a caution, but the gap-year programme sensibly decided that they didn’t want to take the risk of having one of their volunteers publicly deported, or worse, and suggested that she might want to make alternative arrangements. But anyway, the Bishop then decided she was obviously in with a Bad Crowd, and needed some pastoral care from someone nearer her own age. And I got sort of volunteered - and she was touchingly grateful - which was all rather flattering - at first -“
Until, little by little, he explained, flattering attention had started to look increasingly like obsessive stalking, and hysterical, slurred, post-midnight telephone calls, beginning with rambling protestations of undying love, and ending in sobs and suicide threats had become an almost nightly occurrence.
“Well, I tried everything I could think of - and eventually I managed to talk her into having some counselling, and I thought things had calmed down quite a lot - especially since the Bishop pulled strings and found some ashram or other in Kerala that would take her for six months - and she sent me a note when she got back to say how together she was, and how she felt she’d completely resolved her inner conflicts and was buzzing with positive energy -“
“Bad sign,” Canon Bowles observed laconically. Peter spread his hands.
“So I gather - now.”
Her course at Bath Spa University in Creative Studies in English had apparently been going well, until three weeks into the autumn term of her second year she had abruptly broken it off, come home, been tearful but reticent, and had been officially “having a break from academia” ever since, interspersing it with occasional temping jobs and prolonged visits to friends whenever life at home got too much for her.
“And then,” Peter said grimly, “It turned out she’d been keeping an online diary - under an unfortunately easy to decode pseudonym -“
Veronica’s on-line journal had been frank in detailing her journeys between a sequence of gurus and self-proclaimed emotional experts - each new one being hailed as the only one who really understood her - each one growing stale with increasing rapidity -
“Ah,” Canon Bowles said knowledgeably, “Made the mistake of mentioning personal responsibility for one’s actions, did they?”
Until, finally and fatally, Veronica’s latest guru had apparently managed to put his finger on the real reason for her difficulty in forming stable emotional relationships, which, it appears, had been the root cause of her departure from her University course. Canon Bowles raised his eyebrows. Peter shrugged. “It seems her course tutor had the basic common sense to treat Veronica like plutonium when she came on heavily to him,” he explained. “I gather she took it rather badly”.
Her current state could, it seemed, all be traced to Peter’s deeply conflicted and insensitive dealings with her initial problems.
“Initial problems?” Canon Bowles said in tones of deep scepticism. “I can remember when she was suspended from Sunday school for biting the churchwardens. The Bishop might not have thought it was a problem but I can assure you the Parish Council did.”
This, in turn, was apparently as a result of Peter’s inability to adjust to the threat posed to him by her femininity .
“That was probably the time I told her that I thought sharing some Class As and then going to bed with her was not entirely consistent with how I saw my vocation,” Peter said hopelessly to Canon Bowles.
And, in the wake of this epiphany, when Veronica realised that she now had an explanation for the whole of her life to date (“To say nothing of an emotional Get Out Of Jail Free card for at least the next decade,” Canon Bowles murmured), she had chosen to share her counsellor’s insight at length with the intimate group who comprised her on-line diary readers. She waxed lyrical to them about how she had been damaged by Peter’s passive/aggressive abuse and emotional distance. She was not (“Well, why should she be? After all, she was among friends - at least, as Veronica sees it,” Peter observed in her defence) reticent about describing Peter in sufficient detail for him to be easily identifiable. He had, she had confided to the world at large, destroyed almost beyond repair her ability to form stable emotional ties. The experience had caused her to lose her Faith.
Her unseen friends had been rapid and vociferous in their virtual advice. They told her unanimously that her problems with coping with her course, her life, and her God were all the unambiguous result of Peter’s conduct. She could not, it was evident, move onwards until she had closure on that point at least.
And it was, of course, always possible that she was genuinely ill-informed about the Internet-surfing capacity of the older generation. Even in the more rarefied reaches of the clergy.
“And,” Peter said, waving a hand expansively and somewhat cynically, “That may well be why you see me here. I suspect the Bishop read her journal and - “
Canon Bowles looked at him. “Oh, dear. And it isn’t something you could ever deny convincingly - because officially no-one said it had happened?”
Peter’s voice was very small. “Um, yes,” he said.
Canon Bowles shook his head decisively.
“Oh, well, ” he said, “We can’t do anything about Veronica at the moment. Though believe me, with Veronica in your past - no, I know not in that sense, but even so - you simply can’t afford to upset the Bishop any more. I know he can’t actually get rid of you, but he can most certainly make your life not worth living, if he so chooses. And I can tell you, Peter, if at all possible you ought to get married. A married parson doesn’t get half these problems. Admittedly, in my day it was sherry and hand-knitted socks rather than Class A drugs, but the perils are the same in essence. Better to marry than to fight off the world’s Veronicas, as old Paul ought to have put it.”
Peter looked at him in a faintly disgusted way, and topped up the Saint Emilion in both glasses.
“I have asked,” he said, precisely and disgustedly. “Two separate women, in fact (there was a gap of a few years in between, I’ll hasten to add. I’m not that much like Mr Collins). Both of whom I was sincerely attached to - each of whom I felt I could spend the rest of my life with - who I thought shared my values -“
Canon Bowles raised his brows. “But who baulked at the probability of informal ventilation in the roof of any future matrimonial home?”
Peter twisted his mouth in a wry smile. “Among other things. Put it this way: while I am not, in fact, naturally going to fall head over heels for the Lord of the Manor’s boyfriend, equally I am not likely to fall for someone whose only interest in life is the state of the Brownies’ uniforms and the next sale of work. But the ones I’d wanted to spend the rest of my life with both quite reasonably pointed out that they saw more fulfilling outlets for their brains, wit, personality and charm - all the things that had attracted me in the first place, in fact - than spending the rest of their lives as the unpaid underrated assistant to my exceedingly badly paid job. And although I did point out that I was more than happy for my wife to have a career of her own, and that these days the Church took a very understanding line also -“
“Well, within limits,” Canon Bowles murmured. “I can’t see it being too happy with any form of employment Veronica might choose to take up, for instance.”
“It isn’t anything Veronica’s likely to do for a living which would worry them. It’s what she does for her hobbies,” Peter observed tersely. “And anyway, I am not proposing to marry Veronica. Even to get out of Malfoy Intrinsica.”
“Definitely a case of frying pans and fires, I’d agree,” Canon Bowles said solemnly. Peter made an irritated gesture.
“However, Malfoy Intrinsica is part of the problem. Or rather, the problem is that both the women concerned pointed out that their ability to have a career was rather dependent on having some control over where they might end up living, and on that somewhere being reasonably close to somewhere where careers might be pursued. And both of them concluded that the odds were stacked heavily against it. And I’ve got to say, they would both have been absolutely right.”
He stared in a depressed way at the uninspiring wallpaper of the sitting room.
“Oh well,” Canon Bowles observed cheerfully, “There’s no point in worrying too much about that. Especially given your other problems. And I’m planning to sleep on those. Goodnight!”
The extraordinary missive was sitting in his letterbox, without stamp. His unbelieving finger traced over its smooth, creamy, almost shiny surface. He had handled his fair share of ancient manuscripts in his studies, and knew real parchment when he felt it. It just did not happen to be something he’d ever seen an envelope made out of, before. He turned it over and, as he expected, found that it had been closed by a blob of red sealing wax. The seal sported a raised, intricate design - some sort of heraldic beast of the winged serpent type. He turned it back over to look at the inscription.
The deep violet cursive script read
The Rev. Peter Blakney
The Vickaridge, St Sebbastiane’s Church
Minor quibbles notwithstanding, there could be no doubt that it was for him. He took it thoughtfully back to the breakfast table, to see if he could shed any light on the mystery with the help of marmalade and Canon Bowles.
Their combined efforts had not, however, got very far forward when an aggressive fusillade of knocks on the window attracted their attention. As soon as he realised who was standing in his shrubbery Peter beckoned him in with alacrity.
“Canon Bowles: Richard Howard. Our local doctor. Richard: what are you doing here at this hour of the day?”
“Trying to bum a cup of coffee off you,” the local doctor said with a grin, snaking his hands with undeniable expertise across the breakfast table towards the coffee pot. “I’ve been up since 3 a.m delivering Mrs Elworthy’s latest. She wasn’t going to hospital - it was her right to have a home birth. In some sort of home-made tub thing, god help us. Which leaked all over the living room floor. Oh, blimey. Natural childbirth - wonderful concept. If you happen to have a vastly experienced midwife to hand, a pelvic arch which a sequence of twenty years of imbecilic, half-baked, unscientific crash diets adopted since well before puberty hasn’t fucked up beyond all recognition - my pardon, your reverences, for the profanity - and a cultural tolerance of a reasonably high percentage change of child/mother mortality or perinatal damage, that is. Wonderful thing, natural childbirth.”
“It went well, I take it?”
The doctor smiled at the vicar. ” Seven and a half pounds. Mother and daughter doing outstandingly. Sometimes I surprise myself with my brilliance.”
His eye dropped to the parchment envelope on the breakfast table.
“Golly, that was quick,” he observed, “I take it you’re going to this dinner party, then?”
Canon Bowles and Peter exchanged a glance. “Well,” Canon Bowles said, “Dinner invitation was one of the interpretations we’d considered. Along with formal challenge to a duel and practical joke. But I can’t say we’d actually reached any definite conclusions.”
The doctor raised bushy brows. “That bad?”
By way of answer Peter pushed the parchment note the envelope had contained across the table to him. The doctor gave it a quick glance.
“Good grief,” he said, “I can see what you mean. Admittedly, I’ve never actually been able to work out whether he thinks spelling is something one’s minions should do for you, or whether he genuinely is dyslexic. But that’s fairly spectacular even by his standards. But then, I suppose he might have been a bit agitated at the time. Even so, I don’t think I’d have expected you to work it out from first principles without a hint. But I can assure you so far as I’m aware he isn’t the practical joke type, and whereas nothing would surprise me less than to hear he fights duels, gentlemen only challenge their equals, and for those purposes you wouldn’t count. And Caitlin rang me late last night to tip me off about the dinner invite, anyway.”
“Tell me,” Canon Bowles said dryly, “Is your studious avoidance of putting a name to this gentleman psychological, or has his bizarre approach to the English language simply prevented your finding it out?”
Richard looked faintly taken aback, and then guffawed.
“Oh, goodness, kick me now. I’ve actually fallen into the “any elaborate circumlocution provided you avoid a direct reference to the Manor family” trap, and I swore when I arrived I never would. That’s this village for you: twenty-three years and you end up going native. Not that the locals believe it, of course. You want to watch that, Peter.”
Peter looked at the back of the cornflakes packet with an air of deep disgust. “Twenty-three years? You get less than that for doing murder.”
“Whereas you, my dear boy, seem to get yourself into more trouble by not doing things than many hardened sinners do by acting. It does seem rather harsh.”
Richard helped himself to toast and spread it liberally with the vicarage butter. “Ah. Then you’ll have heard the current crop of poisonous village gossip, Canon Bowles?”
Canon Bowles peered at him across his half-rims. “Indeed. Sole reason for my visit, in fact. I haven’t been in Malfoy Intrinsica since the funeral of a rather splendid old lady I met when I was doing a stint as chaplain to the county regiment, and our Colonel introduced us at some regimental tamasha. I understand she’d been instrumental in extricating him and a couple of his men from Occupied France when he was a mere baby Lieutenant. She used to live in that huge house with the grounds halfway up the High Street. I gather it’s a guesthouse with a most peculiar name, now. Pity.”
Richard snorted with laughter again. “That’s Caitlin’s business. I take it the old lady - actually, she wasn’t as old as she should have been when she died, but I had no success at all in persuading her that hypertension and parascending don’t mix - would have been Miranda Franklin? She left that place to Caitlin as sole surviving relative, and Caitlin not having huge slews of disposable income to live a life of leisure in it decided turning it into a vegetarian guest-house was her best option. She’s been remarkably successful at it, too, though I’ve got to say the current climate’s pretty unfavourable for people in her line. F’rinstance. she had a cancellation only the other week - family of Americans deciding that they couldn’t come to England because they daren’t expose the kids to the risk of Mad Cow Disease. How’re you supposed to catch BSE in a vegetarian guest house, for crying out loud?”
He shook his head in bafflement. Canon Bowles’s face glowed with pleasure.
“So this Caitlin - she was the one who tipped you off about the current unpleasantness, wasn’t she, Peter? - was actually a relative of Miss Franklin?”
Richard nodded. “Niece, I understand.” He hesitated, shrugged, and continued, “Though possibly in the somewhat papal sense. According to Caitlin, anyway.”
Canon Bowles shot him a narrow look. “Quite so. And - Caitlin has been invited to this mysterious dinner?”
“Invited? So far as I can see, she’s arranged it. With Peter’s best interests at heart, of course.” He doodled with the point of his knife on the table-cloth for a moment. “As you weren’t in the pub last night I’d better fill you in on the latest developments. I slipped in for a pint, about half an hour before last orders, and hadn’t drunk more than a quarter of it when the door swung wide open and Neville and Draco walked in, not precisely holding hands, but nonetheless projecting an aura of non-marital solidarity you could have bounced bullets off. And, of course, the pub - which had been gossiping happily away to itself about just what you might expect - fell totally silent. At which point Draco started to project every atom of charm at his disposal on the bar at large - which I can tell you was no small quantity of charm, given who he inherits it from - I take it you have at least seen his mother -?”
Peter nodded. “The mature supermodel type with those cheekbones?”
“You got it.” Richard paused again, and laughed. “I swear: Caitlin says the only reason she puts up with me as her bridge partner is because she claims I’m the only man in the whole of the west of the county she can rely on to make up a fourth at a table with Draco and Narcissa, and not revoke out of sheer terror. Anyway, after talking to one of Caitlin’s current guests for a bit - not being local, he wasn’t as backward in coming forward to talk to them as the rest of the bar crowd - they moved on to chat to some of the pool team who were in there. Anyway, before the evening was over (believe me, no landlord in this village is going to baulk at a lock-in if they have a Malfoy in the bar who isn’t showing signs of moving. In fact, come to think of it, I swear I saw our local bobby give Jack the nod before sliding discreetly out into the night round 11ish) they were playing drinking games in the snug with half of the village hard cases. And by the time I left at quarter to midnightish Nick Winzar - you know Nick, I take it, Peter -?”
Peter nodded. “ABH, five months suspended, last conviction,” he added parenthetically to Canon Bowles, “And two paternity suits to his discredit by age 19. It should have been three, but I gather local etiquette is you don’t sue family.”
“They say Watson and Crick got the idea of the double helix from looking at a Malfoy Intrinsica family tree,” the doctor confirmed. “Only they had to leave out some of the more complicated crossings to make it look plausible in an academic paper. Anyway, as I left I saw young Nick had his arm round Draco’s shoulders and was slurring earnestly in his face that he was his mate, he was, and anyone said anything against him he’d effing have them, he would, effing blow-ins. By which I gathered that the village, collectively, is disclaiming responsibility for the rumours and laying the blame firmly as elsewhere as fast as it can put it.”
“How nice for the village.” Peter was aware, once more, of sounding bitter. Richard grinned at him, and nodded down at the envelope on the table.
“Don’t knock it. The village does not get invited to the Manor. Law of the Medes and the Persians. I’ve never been - Caitlin’s hosted all our bridge evenings. So if she’s talked Draco into holding a dinner party and inviting you to it, I can assure you that she’s doing it in order to send the strongest possible message to whoever’s behind this heap of - garbage - that you are not without support, and they’d better assume that you are equipped to win any war they’re proposing to start.”
Canon Bowles gave a pleased sigh. “She does sound so very much like her dear - aunt. It’s a shame you arrived too late for Miss Franklin, Peter. Militant atheist, and stunningly bright with it. She’d read up more theology in order to dispose convincingly of its validity than half of General Synod. She was a positive joy to argue with. Well, I can see you’re in good hands now.”
He pulled himself creakingly to his feet. “I suggest you send back your acceptance pronto, dear boy, and I’ll be getting myself back to Salisbury. I don’t at all like the look of that sky - even more snow on its way, I daresay, and I’d rather be home before it starts. Too old to drive through blizzards, you know. Still, anno domini. Catches up with all of us.”
Richard grinned encouragingly at Peter. “I’ll drop it off at the same time as mine, shall I? I’ve got to get over that way, anyway.”
There was nothing to be done. Peter went to the bureau, and dug out his fountain pen.
The Manor phone rang, to a predictable accompaniment of delirious barking from the dogs who, despite being currently shut up somewhere towards the rear of the Manor, were evidently keen to show that they were still on the ball as regards Defending Their Family Against The Alien Menace.
“Your turn,” Neville said firmly, “And stop looking at it as though it was going to bite you. They can sense fear, you know.”
Picking the receiver up and holding it a long way from his body, Draco hissed at Neville: “And if this turns out to be yet another of your village well-wishers kindly trying to tip you off that I know about your affair with the vicar I shan’t be answerable for the consequences, OK?” He put the receiver gingerly closer to his head. “Hello?” he snapped.
Hermione’s voice sounded somewhat diffident. “Draco?”
“Who else would it be? If you’d behave like any normal witch, you’d be talking from the fireplace, and you’d be able to see who it was without having to go through this elaborate Muggle rigmarole of trying to find out if it’s really me, or just one of the dogs practising its imitations.”
She giggled hesitantly. “I did try the fireplaces first, actually. But there seem to be sort of thick screens in front of all of them.”
“Ah, oh, those. Yes, sorry, I’d forgotten. We aren’t actually doing a lot of communication with the outside world at present.”
Her voice suddenly switched to concern. “Is everything all right?”
Draco made his voice self-consciously off-hand. “Well, now we’ve sorted out the minor domestic problem of Mrs P. trying to poison Neville because she was convinced he was having an affair with the vicar, then yes, everything’s fine. But I must say, Hermione, next time you do a thaumaturlurgical audit of any premises of mine, it’d cause a lot fewer problems all round if you were thorough enough to actually mention little details like necromantic rites, desecrated graveyards and stolen skeletal remains in your final report.”
Her voice on the other end of the line sounded guilty. “We didn’t want to upset you -“
He snorted bitterly. “How thoughtful of you. What a pity those in the village who have been merrily making up alternative explanations ever since for what - or whom - Neville was really doing in the mausoleum didn’t think of that approach. It’s bad enough that our world has been speculating wildly for years about what we get up to in bed -“
“And I’m pretty sure that listening to the Archers omnibus edition on World Wizarding Network isn’t a possibility that crosses their minds, either,” Neville murmured gently from across the room. Draco made a furious face at him, and continued.
“Without the Muggles starting. That really is the last straw. Anyway, enough of that. What can I do for you?”
Hermione coughed: it sounded nervous. “Look, Draco, I want to ask you to do something for me as a friend. Actually, no - scrub that. I’m calling in every favour you’ve ever owed me. I’m drawing upon every last shred of emotional blackmail I can summon up, OK?”
“How refreshingly Slytherin of you,” he drawled. On the other end of the line Hermione made a small testy noise.
“No, Draco, this is serious. I’ve been invited to this wedding on Saturday - an ex-boyfriend - Giles - and I’m absolutely positive the main reason is so he can flaunt this Sarah-Jessica Parker clone he’s marrying in my face -“
“Doesn’t matter. Assume blonde New York stick-insect and fashion victim. Filthy rich. Name drops for North America. Anyway, my invitation oh-so-pointedly said “and guest” and if I turn up on my own she’ll just be so sweetly poisonous about it - as will he -“
He interrupted. “Well, what’s happened to Dances-With-Ducks? The Super Sevens tournament finished a week ago. Why can’t he go with you?”
The sound at the other end of the line was suspiciously like a sniff.
“We’re not - I mean - we’ve decided - um - that it’d be better if - “
Draco’s voice sharpened with interest. “What? You and the Brooding Slav Sex Machine are no longer an item? Again? What was it this time?”
“It’s none of your -“
“Yes it is, if you want me to go to this frightful party. Come on. Give. What happened?”
“Oh, well, it was all so stupid. Viktor had only just got in from Australia, and I’d planned this little welcome back supper - by candlelight -“
“Good start,” Draco observed.
“Well, yes - only, just as we were sitting down to our starter -“
“Oysters, I trust?”
Once more Draco regretted the limitations of Muggle gadgetry. He was almost certain that Hermione was blushing in response, but it was annoying not to be sure.
“Yes,” she said stiffly, “Actually. With small spicy sausages, for contrast. I’d looked up the recipe in Rick Stein, specially.”
“I see. So there were you, in the fetchingly low cut robes, ready to welcome back your sporting hero after his endeavours in the Antipodes - after all those weeks of being at his coach’s beck and call - 10pm curfews - circuit training till you throw up - opposition Seekers aiming nifty elbow jabs into his goolies to put him off his dive for the Snitch - no alcohol - no sex -“
“Thank you, Draco,” she interrupted, “You don’t have to rub it in. I’d made a really special effort, yes. And then - well, a friend who’s going through a really bad patch emotionally called me just at that moment -“
“And?” Draco demanded. “Why didn’t you say to this ill-timed caller demanding your sympathy: “Sorry, sunshine, but my favourite feathered friend has just flown in from Australia: my sympathy for the disasters resulting from your past emotional ineptitude will just have to be put on ice until I’ve finished shagging him senseless. Call you back in a fortnight, OK?”“
It was amazing what Muggles could manage with the limited resources at their disposal, he concluded. Draco could definitely hear the blush at the other end of the line this time.
“Draco! I couldn’t possibly have said anything like that to him.”
He shrugged. “Well, you mightn’t have been able to, but I certainly would’ve in your place.”
Neville raised his eyebrows, looking across from where he had been reading on the sofa on the other side of the room. “Ever thought about whether there’s a correlation between that sort of remark and your popular reputation in our world?”
Draco gave it a moment’s thought. Then he shook his head. “No - I don’t see it.” He turned his attention back to the telephone. “What happened then?”
“Well, it took rather - no, actually, a whole lot - longer than I had hoped for me to give him some constructive suggestions as to how to deal with his current marital crisis -“
“By which, I take it that he mentioned that his wife didn’t understand him, and that he thought the entire relationship had been a mistake, and they’d both rushed into something they wouldn’t have even thought of if it hadn’t been for Recent Events?”
The voice was definitely sounding embarrassed now.
“Well - along those lines - generally speaking -“
“The implication, of course, being that he was now deeply regretting having split up with you?”
“I didn’t say that he - we - ever was - I mean, were -“
“No - but the inference was irresistible. And anyway, if you didn’t then, you have now. And I gather the Swooping Sheldrake of Sofia was listening to all this lot, while his starter congealed on his plate-?”
“Um - I suppose so.”
“And just how long did previous lover-boy decide to take in spending his angst via your hearth-stone?
The voice was hesitant, now.
“Well, I did drop a few hints that I ought to be elsewhere - but he was so worked up he wasn’t up to getting them - it did go on a bit, I suppose - but Viktor shouldn’t have -“
“In terms of minutes, how long would you say?”
At least the person on the other end of the phone had been raised in a tradition of scientific accuracy.
“Um - 87 minutes. Approximately. By the end,” Hermione confessed.
“And it didn’t occur to you that an hour and three quarters sticking your head into your ex’s fire while he poured out his regret at not marrying you instead might be regarded by your current boyfriend as quite enough to take the spice out of anyone’s sausage, let alone on his first night of seeing you after six weeks away?”
“Well, of course it occurred to me that Viktor was getting quite annoyed. I thought he was over-reacting when I heard him getting grumpy in the background. Though I had, to be fair, lost track of the precise time, a bit, by then.”
“Lost the will to live, in your place, I would’ve,” Draco observed trenchantly. “So what happened then?”
“Well, when R - when he finally said goodbye, I turned round and Viktor had gone, and there was a note of Viktor’s chair which said: “Goodbye. You are splendid person to work with, but you have nonetheless broken my heart. No problem at office, but we should never again meet emotionally. I hoped for too much, but at least if one falls in the gutter when staring at stars, one knows one has almost touched heaven. Farewell.” “
Draco felt that there was a certain touch of pride as Hermione recited the last bit. He sniffed, deflatingly. “So far I’m entirely with him on this one. OK - look - if I do go to this event as your - walker, is it that the Muggles call it? - I’ll expect a quid pro quo -“
Hermione sounded almost touchingly grateful. “Anything,” she said.
“Honestly! How long have you known me? There are times I think you shouldn’t be allowed out alone. Try to be more specific in future. Especially with Slytherins. God knows what you could have just let yourself in for. Though as a matter of fact, all I want - if you still do happen to be on speaking terms with Dances With Ducks - is for you to use any influence which you have with him to encourage him to listen to ma’s idea for him to become the Face of her new range of men’s fragrances-“
“Really? Viktor? I’m sure he’d be flattered, but he’s so shy, he’d be bound to ask - why him?”
“Tell him, because there were only two names ma thought were famous enough to front the line, and we were hardly going to go with the other one, were we?”
Neville looked up from his book again. “You might also mention Gran’s comment.”
“Ah, which one?”
“Oh, she got some of the initial launch material - glossy flyers, you know - big banner headlines - “DeVries Passionate - for Men”. And she looked at it and said, “Ay, I know that, but what’s perfume going to be called?” “
Draco snorted. “Hear that from Neville? No? Good. Anyway, the second half of the quid pro quo is - can you come to this dinner party I’m hosting at the Manor on Friday night? About sevenish? We can put you up for the night, and I’ll go on with you to the wedding on Saturday morning straight from the Manor.”
“Dinner party? But, Draco, you don’t -“
“With my 21st mere months away, high time I started, don’t you think? Anyway, will you?”
“Yes. If you come and help me out at this wedding. Oh, you’ve no idea what a relief it is. I was dreading showing up alone and having Giles and - thing - do the poor dear, Can’t find a man bit over me -“
“Look, I’m happy enough to turf up if I can’t avoid it, but don’t you think in the can’t find a man of your own stakes turfing up with someone whose main claim to fame was being outed by the Daily Prophet is just going to make the same point, double underlined with little red hands pointing at it?”
Hermione’s delivery was rapid. “I don’t really think it’s going to matter at this particular party.”
Draco knew his voice had gone sharp with suspicion.
“Hermione - is there something else you’ve forgotten to tell me about this wedding?”
“Yes. Claridges, 2.30pm.”
There was a sharp click. The line went dead. Draco turned to Neville.
“Well, I think that went OK, didn’t it?” he enquired nervously. Neville shrugged.
“If you want to spend all Saturday holding Hermione up at her Muggle ex-boyfriend’s wedding, I reckon it went just fine,” he said.
The familiar battered Landrover parked outside the village shop, with its two canine prisoners making vocal objections to their unjust incarceration, prepared Peter to find Neville inside. He suppressed a groan of regret as he noted that his least favourite - and most celebrated - parishioner was also in the shop, propped aggressively against the counter and addressing Mrs Waley, the shop’s owner, in injured, carrying tones.
“Honestly, this is too ridiculous. And so bloody typically English. Half a century after Elizabeth David started writing, and it still seems to be impossible to buy a simple little staple like aceto balsamico di Modena outside a major population centre. I would drive over to Waitrose in Salisbury to get some, but the engine on the Aston’s missing.”
Mrs Waley pursed up her lips, and shook her head from side to side.
“Honestly, sir, that’s terrible. What the village lads will nick these days, it just doesn’t bear thinking of.”
Neville, who was leaning absently against the dried fruit while he awaited the end of the tirade, was heard to emit a splutter, which he deftly turned into a cough. Peter carefully avoided meeting Mrs Waley’s eye.
Her customer sighed, pointedly. “I meant, its timing’s suddenly gone right off. And I can’t possibly get it fixed before tonight, and there isn’t anything I can substitute for balsamic vinegar in the recipe.”
Mrs Waley’s expression instantly changed to one of enlightenment. “Why didn’t you say it was balsamic vinegar you were after, sir? There should be some in the far corner, bottom shelf. We ordered it in special last summer for that nice American lady whose husband owns those offices they’ve made out of part of the Manor, and I don’t think we’re out of stock yet.”
Muttering, her customer retreated towards the back of the shop, emerging seconds later looking somewhat dustier but bearing the dark bottle ahead of him like a prize of war.
The option of making a strategic retreat while his parishioner’s back was turned had crossed Peter’s mind, but been rejected as unworthy of the dignity of the cloth. Inevitably, Somerville spotted him and he suffered himself to be effusively greeted. By way of minor revenge, he turned to Neville, and said:
“I don’t think you’ll have met Hugo Somerville, will you?”
Neville shook his head and extended a hand. “Neville Longbottom.”
“Charmed,” Mr Somerville murmured, dropping the hand after the barest time politeness allowed, and rather pointedly not wiping it on his trousers, though still ineffably making all three of them aware that his instinctive reaction had been to do so. Mrs Waley, who had taken his money for the balsamic vinegar while the introductions had been in progress, beamed cheerfully at Neville and said:
“The usual, is it?”
“Yes, thanks, Eileen. And can you put this notice up, please? The committee’s decided the only thing to do is to cancel the pool league for the duration of the epidemic.”
Hugo Somerville raised one eyebrow and looked sardonically down his nose in the trade marked expression which media insiders reckoned was worth at least £50,000 per annum in product endorsements alone.
“I know pool-tables have feet,” he drawled, “But surely taking foot-and-mouth precautions on their behalf is a little excessive? Or is it a village superstition? One can believe almost anything of the local yokels round here, of course.”
In Peter’s travels in the wilder parts of the world he had frequently seen men, and, not unseldom women, in what was colloquially called a killing rage. However, the only time he had ever seen cold-blooded murder done in front of him - which he had been entirely powerless to stop - the murderer’s face had had the cold, focused intense quiet he was aware of in Neville’s face now. He shivered. However, Neville’s voice was mild as he responded.
“I think you’ll find that pool players have feet, too. Which, unlike the tables, might well have crossed infected land some time recently. Two of our team members are from affected farms, actually, and I’m not sure about the rest of the league. And it would be hardly fair to them to continue, don’t you think? I know the sight of just having had all our stock slaughtered and burnt would definitely put me off my game, even if there wasn’t any risk of cross-infection.”
Somerville contemplated him coolly for some moments. “I suppose there could be something in that.”
Without more, he turned deliberately away from Neville to Peter. “Peter, what is this nonsense from the Parish Council? As you know, we offered the Mill House grounds for the summer fête this year - you must know that the mere association with my name is likely to more than double attendance, even though unfortunately we’ll be in Tuscany ourselves on that date. I’d made all the arrangements, at considerable personal inconvenience. And then I get a note “thanking me for my generous offer but the Council has decided that the traditional location in Mrs Armitage’s garden would be a more appropriate venue in the circumstances.” What circumstances, for heaven’s sake?”
Peter spread his hands in a conciliatory way. “You must understand, Hugo, that this is a traditional village. We debated your very generous offer very thoroughly and most carefully, but the fete is such a local celebration - this year in particular - you have to understand, that the feeling was particularly strong that, by the summer, it could be either a wake or a celebration for everything the local people hold particularly dear. And - in the circumstances - and after long and prayerful thought - we came to the conclusion that this was not the year to break with tradition. And since the Armitage family have hosted it for longer than anyone can recall -“
“Waterloo year,” Mrs Waley interjected unexpectedly. They all looked at her. Neville grinned and dropped into a stage version of his normal accent. “Eh, I’ll go to our house. Ah’d never have thought it. You look far too young to remember that, lass. They must be putting summat funny in the water in these parts, you know, love.”
“Cheeky boy!” She flicked a duster at him. “And I hope we’re going to see you both, this time round, hm?”
He looked at her rather sheepishly. “Well, I hope so. Well, we were planning to turn up last year, as a matter of fact, but - well, we got a copy of the programme in advance. And - ah, um - when we discovered that one of the highlights of the programme was going to be ferret-racing - ah, well, then it turned out to be a harder sell than I’d anticipated, actually. Um - sorry.”
She looked at him. “Like that, is it, m’dear? Don’t you worry, I’ll be sure and mention it to the committee. Will you tell himself he shouldn’t worry, and that that’s from me, like?”
Neville nodded. She smiled at him.
Hugo Somerville had held himself sternly aloof from this by-play. He turned to Peter, and said, “Local people? How long does one have to live in this village, then, to count as local?”
Neville smiled, cheerfully. “Well, according to Draco, it shouldn’t take more than about two hundred years.” He paused, and then deliberately dragged out his flat Lancashire tones again. “If, happen, tha keeps working at it, you understand, laike.”
That evidently got through. Somerville flushed, and turned back towards him, evidently about to spit something out in sheer fury -
And then stopped, abruptly.
“Draco?” he said in suddenly strangulated tones. “Do you mean Draco Malfoy?”
All three of the others looked at him in - Peter suddenly realised - a virtually identical and-how-many-other-Dracos-have-you-ever-heard-of-in-Wiltshire? way. Somerville, obviously recognizing their expressions and recovering gamely, said smoothly to Neville:
“Our deeply reclusive Lord of the Manor, I understand. And how do you come to know him?”
There was a moment of profound silence in the shop. In completely matter-of-fact tones, Neville said, “I live with him.”
To his credit, Somerville took the point with calm control.
“I see. So you live at the Manor? I’m glad we met - I have a colleague within the BBC - actually he’s researching locations for the new high budget costume classic at this very moment - who I can see being very interested in the potential of a house like the Manor for location purposes. I could arrange an introduction - he’s got a fearsomely busy schedule but he’d stretch a point for me, I know. Why don’t you call me when I’ve got back to the Mill House and have my schedule in front of me, and we can fix up a meeting at the Manor with him, so we can go over possible locations?”
Neville looked thoughtfully at him. “Anything of that sort would be entirely Draco’s affair,” he said slowly, “But I really can’t see him being interested.”
Somerville widened his eyes. “No?” he said incredulously. “But being seen in high quality costume drama makes an amazing difference to the value of a property - to say nothing of its future revenue potential. If everything they’re saying about this new production is true, Malfoy Manor could end up being easily as famous as Lyme Park.”
Neville kept his face entirely straight, though Peter thought he detected an irreverent sparkle about his eyes.
“I suspect Draco thinks that Manor is already at least as famous as it needs to be,” he said, and paused.
“In our circles, anyway,” he added.
Somerville shrugged. “I really don’t think you’re being entirely fair to pass up such an opportunity without consulting your - ah, him. Look, why don’t I pop round tomorrow morning, say, so I can discuss my ideas face to face?”
“I rather think we’re tied up tomorrow morning. Perhaps you could drop Draco a note? I’ll let him know to expect it.”
Somerville nodded, in a baffled and somewhat bemused way. Neville eyed him for a moment, and then turned to Peter with the slight air of relief of one who drops something too difficult to handle.
“I’m glad I ran into you,” he said. “Draco asked me specifically to check you were still OK for Friday night, and to remind you that since we’ve - ah - beefed up security recently - you should give me a call when you’re leaving the village, so I can arrange to let you through.”
Somerville raised an eyebrow.
“I wasn’t aware Nelcorp was having an event on Manor land?”
“They aren’t, so far as I’m aware. I’m simply going to a dinner party at the Manor. Yes, Neville, that sounds absolutely fine, thanks.”
Somerville eyed him. “Well,” he breathed, “I’m not at all sure what the Parish Council might think about that. If this village is really as traditional as you make out, Peter.”
Neville’s head snapped up abruptly. Peter smiled serenely. “Fortunately, if anyone were proposing to raise any issue of that nature, I can point to some exceptionally strong precedents to suggest that whom I choose to break bread with is not a valid area of criticism. But I really would be quite surprised if anyone on the Parish Council thought fit to mention anything of the sort.”
“So,” Mrs Waley muttered grimly, “Would I.”
Somerville gathered his things together. “Ah, well. I need to be getting back to my recipe.” He looked sharply at Neville. “And you will bear in mind my proposal?”
Neville nodded. As Somerville was heading towards the door Neville turned towards his departing back, and coughed. Hugo stopped.
“I’m sorry,” Neville said apologetically, “But I’ve completely forgotten your name. Head like a sieve, I’m afraid. Always has been. Who should I tell Draco was asking?”
There was a speaking silence in the shop. Then:
“Hugo Somerville,” he hissed, without elaboration, and was gone.
Neville turned to Peter wit a slightly baffled expression on his face. “Was it something I said?”
Peter knew his face must be a picture. Restraining inappropriate laughter was a physical ache.
“You mean that put-down wasn’t deliberate? Oh, goodness. I suppose, it’s just about possible you mightn’t have heard of Hugo Somerville, but he’d never believe it. He is really a very, very big star. BBC. New Labour pin-up boy. You know. Serious thirteen-part history programmes on BBC2 about the Concept of Empire, with lots of wonderful brooding architectural shots, and snarky asides straight to camera. Election night specials. Teeth-in-jugular interviews with politicians who’ve been caught with their hands in the till, or their trousers down. That sort of thing.”
Neville’s expression remained honestly baffled. “Ah. I see. I suppose.”
Peter looked more closely at him. “You - don’t, do you? At all?”
Neville shook his head. Mrs Waley interjected unexpectedly:
“Personally, I blame this Internet thing.”
Both of them looked at her. She shrugged, and amplified.
“Well, in the old days, people from London came out here for the weekend, liked it, wanted a weekend cottage - even bought themselves some quaint, thatched, rat-infested wreck, sometimes - but they always gave up once they realised they couldn’t get everything here they took for granted back home. So they didn’t cause a real problem for the rest of us. These days, they order it all over the Internet from Waitrose in Salisbury, don’t deal locally, drive up house prices and put everyone’s backs up. The family up at the Old Schoolhouse, for instance, they were complaining day-before-yesterday that the village smelt of manure. Why move to the countryside if they can’t take healthy farm smells, that’s what I say.”
Neville leaned comfortably back against the counter. “Well, to be fair,” he said reasonably, “We don’t actually do all that much shopping in the village.”
She shot him a glance in which friendly and wary were almost equally balanced. He obviously perceived her reservation, because his face for the moment looked faintly pained. She shook her head, briskly.
“Well, we do know it’s different for you, m’ducks.”
Neville raised his eyebrows in an expression that was part resistant, part resigned. “Well,” he said, “I can flatly guarantee that we aren’t getting our groceries over the Internet from Waitrose in Salisbury. Whatever.”
Mrs Waley dropped her eyes, nervously, as though she didn’t care to speculate where their groceries might be coming from. Neville shrugged, turned to Peter and said:
“Anyway, I’m glad that you’re still able to make it on Friday. Caitlin Naismith and Richard Howard are coming, and there’s a girl we were both at school with we’d really like you to meet. Should be a good evening.”
It was clear, from his unmoving attitude, that Neville was proposing to wait politely while Peter completed his few modest purchases. When he had done so, they walked out of the shop together in the direction of the Land-Rover.
And no doubt that’s intended as a message for - watching eyes - too. I only hope they’re interpreting it the right way.
“Anyway,” Neville said casually, “We’re both looking forward to seeing you on Friday.”
He opened the passenger side door in order to throw his own shopping on the seat. With a lightning-like wriggle one of the imprisoned dogs seized the moment, diving under his arm and off to freedom.
“Bloody hell fire!”
A sharp movement of Neville’s knee slammed the door shut a bare instant before the second dog followed suit.
“No, Riddle! Heel! At once! Now!”
The truant paid him no attention whatsoever, skidding off round the bend of the street with frantically flapping ears.
“Come back! Are you ever going to regret it when I catch up with you!”
He broke into a run after the escapee. Peter, trying to suppress a grin, followed at a more leisurely pace.
The bid for freedom had not lasted long. Just round the bend of the street Peter spotted a familiar - but still, in her ethereal blonde beauty and Bohemian designer chic, deeply exotic - figure, fending off the spaniel’s frantic overtures of affection with rather ineffectual bats of her hands. Neville waded in and seized the dog’s collar, dragging him forcibly off her.
“You repellent pup,” Neville addressed the miscreant, “Have you no manners?” He looked up at the young woman. ” I really am so sorry. He just took his chance and bolted. I’m afraid both the dogs have gone a bit stir-crazy, not being allowed off our land except in the car, the last few weeks. Though it’s hardly as if they’ve been locked up in a kennel in some squalid back yard, however much they might try to put that over on you. Honestly, you know, I do wonder whether this people getting like their pets thing is as much of a one-way street as they say - He hasn’t damaged your clothes, has he? Or startled you too badly?”
“Not at all.” She brushed muddy paw marks rather pointedly off her ankle-length vicuna coat as she said it, and her tone was calculated to convey a sense of injury nobly borne behind an impeccable facade of good manners. Neville looked faintly distressed: it was plainly Peter’s clerical duty to smooth over the awkward moment. He advanced on the little group.
“Innogen! How are you? You’re looking very well. We were just speaking to Hugo in the shop, a moment ago, but he didn’t mention that you’d got back from New York. I trust that all went well? I don’t believe you’ll have met Neville? Neville Longbottom; Innogen McClellan.”
Hugo’s wife looked up at him, and her air of dignified restraint dissolved instantly into an impish smile.
“Rector! How lovely to see you! And I am so looking forward to being in a proper church again on Sunday. I know it shouldn’t make a difference, and I do try my hardest, but St Sebastian’s just feels so right somehow. You know, they really couldn’t handle it when I told them last Sunday that my home church was founded in 1350. Though that was a very lovely church, too. Upstate New York. Such a picturesque little town. White clapboard houses, picket fences and a duck-pond. Utterly, utterly like being on a film set, except the buildings had depth to them.”
She turned to face Neville, holding out a delicate, immaculately manicured hand.
“Hello. How nice to meet you. I’m sorry I sounded a little abrupt. I’m afraid I was bitten by a dog when I was a little girl, so yours leaping up at me just brought back such bad memories.”
She leaned over the spaniel, and caught it by the ears so as to tussle it round its head, while addressing it with playful firmness.
“But you wouldn’t do anything like that, now, would you? You’re a good doggie, aren’t you, yes you are, yes.”
Riddle lolled his tongue adoringly.
Neville, obviously relieved that the tension had eased, permitted himself a grin. ‘Well, I wouldn’t trust him not to give you a very thorough wash if you get yourself in range. But he’s never bitten anyone, so far as I know. Have you, Riddle?”
Innogen straightened up abruptly and her hand went to her lips.
“Riddle? But that’s -” She emitted a little, high-pitched squeaky giggle. “Such an original name for a dog. And you’ve got two, you say? What’s the other one called? Trick? Tray?”
Neville’s expression looked as though he had bitten unexpectedly into a lemon.
“Unfortunately, not. But that’s not something that can be helped, more’s the pity. Anyway, Peter, I’d better drag this beast home and throw it in a tub of disinfectant - yes, you horrible hound, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to you before I let you put a paw back on our land, and see how you like that next time you decide go off gallivanting - see you on Friday - bye - goodbye, um - Innogen -“
He was gone. Innogen stood looking after him for a moment. The impish expression had faded; there was something unreadable about the set of her beautiful, immaculately made-up lips. Suddenly, she seemed to pull herself together, turned to face Peter, and smiled.
“Well!” she said, “Not at all the usual type of man for round here, is he? Though still a little - adolescent - possibly. Gauche.”
She paused, and then it was clear she had dismissed Neville entirely from her consideration. Smiling shyly up at him, she brought her hands together under her chin, and with a little sigh of content snuggled them down into the fur muff she was wearing round her neck.
Real mink, Peter noted, and equally genuinely an Edwardian antique. Three comforting generations to insulate Innogen from any breath of criticism for the blood spilt, and she sacrifices not one whit of luxury.
He blinked. A harsh inner voice observed:
Perhaps you need to learn the balance between clearsightness and lack of charity.
Fortunately, it seemed, Innogen had caught nothing of his mental reservations. Her voice was trustful, confidential, breathy.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Hugo about it since I got back. But what do you think of our really exciting plans for the summer fête? Won’t the Mill House be simply perfect?”