Hampstead: 6pm October 24th 1997
The cigarette perched between Pete’s lips scrawled the surreal, smoky shapes of his words in the air as he spoke.
“So what is the old…chap up to then?”
Ash dropped onto his shirt cuff and he cursed, flicking it away in irritation then scrutinising the material for any hint of a stain.
“He’s not up to anything.” Jane bridled in the en-suite bathroom where she was applying mascara. “This dinner party’s been on the cards for a long time.” She could have volunteered a little more information, remembering her father’s words when the original invitation had been mooted, but didn’t feel inclined. The two men just couldn’t seem to get along. As she was the reason they needed to interact on very rare occasions, she tended towards a mixture of guilt and defensiveness when either of them was at all critical of the other, coming down on the side of the absent party most of the time. The flaw in that tactic was the impossibility of choosing a side at family gatherings, which made things awkward in the extreme, leaving her feeling like the United Nations. However, though both men were proud, only one of them was arrogant, which simplified matters in her head if nothing else.
“Damned inconvenient, sweetheart.” The term of endearment was perfunctory at best; at worst, condescending.
In the mirror Jane saw Pete struggling with his bow tie and couldn’t deny her distaste at the way he squinted through the cigarette smoke. The circles in which he aspired to move meant he would never have dreamed of wearing a clip-on, though he always had problems tying the real McCoy, but it seemed he gave no thought to what his would-be peers might think of him smoking as he dressed. Still, she was past commenting.
“A long time,” she re-emphasised, returning to the theme of dinner. “It has priority over your poker night.”
“Mmmm.” He stopped what he was doing and gave the tie an abrupt jerk, ripping it from round his neck. Seemed he’d decided it wasn’t worth the effort after all, just for dinner at her father’s. “Never can do these damn things.”
“Well you don’t have to. No-one’s said it was a James Bond themed party.”
The dagger in his look just about stayed sheathed. “I’m going to get a bourbon. You want one?”
“No, one of us had better stay sober.” She didn’t know whether he heard the reply, as he was already halfway down the stairs, but it looked like she was driving again. “Shouldn’t you be drinking a Martini instead; shaken, not shtirred?” she muttered, grinning at her attempted Sean Connery accent. He would always be Bond for her; her husband’s blonde, ripped looks might do it for some women, but it would never do for 007.
Jane stepped out of the bathroom, caught sight of herself in the full-length mirror and got a surprise. It was like looking at a stranger.
“Not bad for forty,” she whispered, “though I say it myself.” Then she experienced a frisson of regret. She straightened up and moved across to stand in front of the mirror. “Who knows how things might have been, old girl…” The impromptu discussion with her reflection stopped for a moment as she heard Peter’s epithet pass her lips. Then, with a sigh, she continued anyway. “What if you’d allowed yourself to be something other than that geeky, studious girl; had let your hair down a bit – what there is of it?” She ran her fingers through it, noting with a twinge of sadness the practical shortness. Peering at herself again, she smiled at the irony of having a reflective moment in front of a mirror. Jane put her fingertips to her face. Her skin was, to her mind, over-tanned, though not by choice, and prone to dryness; the result of spending most of her life al-fresco in hot climates – but she didn’t scrub up too badly, in her self-critical opinion.
She pressed her lips together in momentary annoyance; this insecurity was out of character, so why now? Not even when she’d passed forty a few weeks before had she bothered to wallow in self-pity; her first concern that particular morning had been for a rare Coptic manuscript, not her ancient self. Her interest in the past tended to exclude her own – she wasn’t someone given to backward glances in her story, just history – but as she heard the clink of ice dropping into a glass downstairs, she wondered if that was because she didn’t dare to look.
Whatever her motivation it seemed, right now, she needed to take stock of what faced her; accentuate the positives and, just for once, see what today offered, instead of yesterday.
Appraising her strong, slender figure – the plus-side of an active life – she gave it a curt nod of approval. There were no regrets about the lack of children in her marriage, but glancing towards the stairs she knew that decision had not been reached for all the right reasons.
She shook her head. Damn it all, she’d reached the top of her chosen field. One couldn’t excel at everything.
Perhaps she would have a drink after all. Sighing, she smoothed the front of her outfit, taking some pleasure from the flatness of her stomach, and then headed downstairs to the lounge.
“If the offer’s still open…”
Pete turned from the French windows and went over to the drinks cabinet.
There was no denying; Pete and she did have at least one thing in common – a curiosity about that evening’s dinner. Jane didn’t want an atmosphere to spoil things, so she settled on the sofa and took the proffered drink with grace.
“Really, I know nothing about this evening other than father’s making good on a promise. I’m as much in the dark as you.” Pete grunted, unconvinced. “Ever since he confirmed the invitation he’s shrouded the event in secrecy.”
“Does this mean he’ll be making one of his ‘announcements’?” Pete drew exaggerated inverted commas in the air. The sarcasm was unmistakable, but despite herself Jane smiled.
“You mean, waiting until the break between dessert and coffee, tapping his glass and cracking some poor joke before getting round to the business in hand.”
In that sense her father was predictable – and that was cool by her. Mariners of old needed mooring posts as much as they needed the stars. It wasn’t good when the only certainty was unpredictability.
Both she and Pete laughed at the image of her father’s harmless showmanship, but the effect of that rare moment of togetherness was immediate and awkward. All that was missing from the ensuing silence – as Pete resumed his stance by the window and Jane examined the contents of her glass – was the desolate howl of the freezing Antarctic wind.
Her roving mind moved on, though it would return to that same spot of darkness soon enough; a lighthouse beam granting just a glimpse of the dangers. Her irritation with Pete was an ongoing thing – she lived with it like backache – but in recent times she had sensed something lurking just out of the light, some danger, and she couldn’t shake the feeling it was creeping up on her again. She remembered seeing the mist of its breath a couple of months before, as she had studied that amphora, trying to decipher its code. She had looked over her shoulder, wondering…well, she wasn’t sure now exactly what she had been wondering.
She glanced at Pete, still standing by the window. At what point in a relationship did a cigarette dangling with studied carelessness from the lips stop looking raffish and insouciant, and become coarse; taking you from East of Eden to the East End? Likewise she pondered which parent had passed on the proud gene that prevented her from admitting it was s0.