ONLY A SIGNAL SHOWN by Leela Dutt
Chapter One - Wales, 1972
What the hell is that hideous smell?
Overpowering – burning, surely, but also sweet. Sweet? Kind of orangey.
Breathless, Eleanor paused at the top of the third flight of stairs, clutching a heavy set
of books she was trying to return. The smell was stronger up there; surely that
was smoke she could see at the end of the dark corridor? Must be a kitchen.
She hurried along the corridor, and now she could hear someone coughing. Opening the door,
she was hit by fog.
A very young man was standing there, looking puzzled. He was tall and he had an untidy mass
of black hair which went straight up, and the most peculiar eyebrows. He was
staring at the oven; his eyes were the deepest brown she had ever come across.
A cartoon character, exaggerated features, shock on his face. On the worktop he
had put down a large brown pair of NHS glasses, covered in steam.
‘Are you OK?’ she asked him. ‘I mean, I couldn’t help noticing…’
She opened the oven door and saw a blackened corpse which from its shape used once, perhaps,
to be a chicken. She turned the oven off, grabbed a couple of cloths and deftly
lifted the tray out and put it down.
‘Oh thanks,’ the young man said. ‘I wasn’t sure what… My name’s Alec Jenkins, by the way.’
‘Enchanted to meet you,’ she said. But he looked much too nice for her brand of sarcasm.
‘Eleanor Larsen-Bruun. That’s a double letter U in Bruun, mind; my father was
Danish. What on earth is this?’
She opened the window with a struggle, while Alec told her that he was trying to roast a
chicken for the boys and had put marmalade all over the breast.
‘My Mum puts marmalade on chicken,’ he explained, and Eleanor found it endearing that he was
still so close to his parental home that what happened there was his standard,
his frame of reference. He was surely a first year student like herself.
‘Well perhaps your mother doesn’t use quite so much marmalade,’ said Eleanor, noticing
a half-empty jar on the table. ‘And what have you got inside it? Oh no…’ She reached
inside the bird and pulled out a melted plastic bag containing what could only
be the giblets. She suppressed a giggle. ‘Actually I think you’re supposed to
take these out before you cook it,’ she told him, trying to sound kind. He
really was a very nice young man; he probably shouldn’t be allowed out alone,
and being unkind to him would be like kicking a kitten.
‘Look, it isn’t that bad,’ said Eleanor, pulling at the outside skin. By now the smell
had changed, and she was beginning to get a whiff of what could be rather
pleasant roast chicken. It was a very long time since breakfast, and she hadn’t
had time – or money – for any lunch today so she had worked all day in the lab
without a break. ‘There should be enough here for you and your friends if you
cut it carefully.’
‘Well no, actually, I don’t think any of them are free this evening. There’s a match on
the box – I didn’t realise.’
‘Oh, is there?’ Matches tended to pass Eleanor by.
‘But it seems a shame to waste the chicken. I’m starving!’ he said with a sudden grin. ‘I
don’t suppose… Would you like some? There’s plenty.’
‘Well if you insist…’
Eleanor found a couple of plates in a cupboard and started to hack at the bird. ‘Potatoes?
No, don’t worry: someone’s left a loaf here – surely they won’t mind if we
liberate a couple of slices?’
Cutlery was apparently in short supply. ‘Hey, who needs cutlery?’ Eleanor said as she
carried the chicken into Alec’s room along the corridor. They curled up on the
bed with it, attacking the sticky meat with fingers.
‘These black bits of skin are nice, you know,’ said Eleanor. ‘I’ve always loved burnt toast,
too. My mother thinks I’m mad. But then she thinks I’m mad whatever I do. So
does my sister.’
They got their hands and faces covered in stickiness, which Alec seemed to mind more than
‘My father always said that if it has wings, you are allowed to pick it up in your fingers
and eat it. That’s a Danish rule, he said…’
‘He sounds nice, your father. Is he…?’
‘He’s dead now.’
‘Oh I’m so sorry.’
‘He died when I was fifteen,’ Eleanor went on. ‘I loved him very, very much but he died
Why on earth did I say that? I’ve never said that to anyone before, she thought.
‘My mother’s Italian,’ she went on. ‘She’s a lot older than me – she was forty-three by the
time she had me, but she tries gamely to keep up. We live in London.’
‘Italian, is she? That’s where you get your looks from, then,’ Alec said, getting out his
hanky to wipe his chin.
That’s what they all say. Bugger.
They washed the chicken down with some cans of coke – which was all he had in his room.
Eleanor drank his coke that evening, and it was several days before she told
him that she had never liked fizzy drinks, especially the sort that come in
‘We could go to the Union for a drink,’ he suggested, and she found that she didn’t have
anything at all pressing to do that evening.
He had long thin hands – that much she remembered noticing on the first evening, as she
drew a quick sketch of him the next day. Piano player’s hands, but he said not:
it was his younger brother Charlie who was the musical one in the family. A
budding genius, thought their mother, but geniuses have to practise, and
Charlie was reluctant, since he had a theory that the more you practise the
worse you become.
Alec didn’t seem keen to talk about his family, so Eleanor
asked him instead about his subject. He was reading history, but his real
passion was archaeology. His whole face lit up as he talked to her about the
Romans at Caerleon. ‘Have you been to see the amphitheatre there? I could take
Next morning Alec turned up at Eleanor’s shared house first thing. She hadn’t had breakfast
– and the place was a mess.
‘Sorry to be so early,’ he said, trying to look contrite. ‘But I thought you’d be going out
Indeed she should be, but she found it much more agreeable to offer him coffee and sit
down opposite him in the communal kitchen. With a bit of luck no one else from
the house would drift in; they were a nosey lot, her housemates, but not being
scientists they didn’t get up that early.
In the cold light of day Alec looked – what? More real? His hair was even more all over the
place. She worked out what was so odd about his eyebrows: they went up like
gable ends. He had an infectious laugh and a fresh, just-washed smell.
‘I could make you toast,’ she offered. She never normally had time for toast. ‘I promise not
to burn it!’
He laughed. ‘I don’t care if you do! Yes, please.’
‘I’ve got plenty of marmalade,’ she told him. ‘You’ll want that.’
He went on to explain that it really was urgent to see her because he’d just remembered that
a mate of his was having a party the following night and he wondered if
she’d like to come. ‘It might be terribly boring but you wouldn’t have to stay
long if you don’t like it…’
She hated parties.
‘Oh yes, that sounds lovely. Thanks.’
Hell – why did I say that? Now I’ve got to find something to wear, and I have absolutely
nothing – repeat, nothing – that will stop me looking like a small dumpy woman
with too many cardigans.
He was right: it was a boring party. The mate who was holding it turned out to be more of an
acquaintance, and there wasn’t anyone else there whom either of them knew.
There was a hopeless squash around the food, and he had to put his arm around her to guide
her to where they might get some.
That’s nice – do keep your arm just exactly there, she thought.
He took a couple of plates and began to pile them high with a bit of everything. ‘Don’t
know what this is, do you? Never mind, we’ll try it.’ There was quite a lot of
not altogether unpleasant wine.
Eventually they noticed that they hadn’t actually spoken to anyone else since they entered
the room, and he suggested that they went elsewhere. ‘Sorry Eleanor – when
you’ve taken so much trouble. Getting dressed, I mean. I like that green
thingy, by the way – what would you call it? Your blouse, is it? Whatever. We
can stay if you want…’
‘I do normally, you know. Get dressed. Before I go out anywhere.’
She giggled. ‘But I don’t mind leaving. We can go back to my place if you
Her place was mercifully empty, it being Friday night. There was a smell of stale baked
beans, and someone – Her Upstairs probably – had left the cheese and its dirty
grater out on the table as usual.
He did not appear to see the clutter in her room. Swiftly she swept up the jumble of stuff
on her bed – lecture notes, mainly, and a recent letter from her sister, a
dirty bra and a couple of half-eaten apples – and made a space.
At least he can’t think I was planning all along to bring him back here.
He looked round for a chair to sit on. There was only the one, so very carefully he
lifted up the papers and a couple of books, straightened them into a neat pile,
and placed them on the desk. He sat on the chair while she curled up on the
‘Why don’t you come onto the bed too?’ she said. ‘There’s plenty of room.’
‘Oh! Well, all right, then.’
She shifted along and he squatted gingerly on the edge of the bed.
She smiled encouragingly, but he didn’t quite seem to know what to do next. ‘Well…this is
nice. Have you lived here long?’ he said after a moment.
‘Long enough,’ she laughed, taking his hand. She lent forwards and kissed him on the mouth.
For a fraction of a second he looked startled.
* * *
It was pouring with rain when he took her out to see the
Roman remains at Caerleon next day. They had to catch a couple of buses, and by
the time they arrived the damp was seeping into Eleanor’s socks. On the way
Alec had made some silly remark about another passenger on the bus – something
about a woman’s hat looking as though it had two or three birds nesting deep
within its environs, and Eleanor found to her embarrassment that she couldn’t
stop laughing. Nor could Alec.
‘I’m sorry we couldn’t borrow my Dad’s car,’ he said at last, taking her hand and leading her
straight to the museum to get out of the rain. ‘But my brother Charlie wrecked
it last weekend, taking Milly to some dance.’
‘Oh, she’s just an old family friend. My Mum was at school with her mother. Mum’s always
wanted one of us to marry Milly…’
‘So she’s Charlie’s girlfriend?’
‘Ah no, not seriously. Charlie’s got several girls on the go at the moment. He’s just using
Milly. He always uses people,’ he went on. He sounded venomous, she thought in
‘So how does Milly feel about it?’
Alec paused. ‘I think, poor kid, that she’s rather keen on my brother.’ He reached in his
pocket for some change to pay the entrance fee. ‘Anyway Charlie wrapped Dad’s
car round this lamppost, didn’t he… Bit of a cliché, but then my brother’s a
‘How fast was the lamppost going?’
Alec grinned and put his arm round her waist. ‘So Dad’s not
speaking to Charlie, and there’s no car for me to borrow just now. He won’t let
anyone else touch the courtesy car.’
They went into the museum and shook the rain off their clothes like a pair of puppies.
‘I don’t usually…’ he said, pausing by an exhibit of Roman helmets in the first room.
‘You know, sleep with someone on the first date.’ He looked at her anxiously.
‘But it was OK, wasn’t it?’
‘Oh but it wasn’t our first date!’ She laughed. ‘Chicken dinner was the first, remember,
then you came for breakfast… No, last night was our third at the very least, if
we are counting.’
He kissed her nose and an elderly man of about forty, who was escorting a party of
school-children, turned round and frowned.
Alec had planned to have lunch at the pub in the main street, but when they stood
outside in what was by now a light drizzle, looking at the menu, he realised in
horror that he hadn’t in fact got enough cash on him.
‘Oh, never mind.’ She grinned. ‘I’m not hungry enough for a steak! Wasn’t there a café we
passed near the bus stop?’
The café was small and crowded, full of wet customers and a smell of freshly cooked chips and damp
clothing. Luckily some people left just as they walked in, so Eleanor grabbed
their table while Alec went over to join the queue at the counter. He ordered
two plates of egg and chips. As he balanced them on a tray and turned to carry
it across to Eleanor, he stooped over the tray, frowning with concentration, and she saw for
the first time that he had a curious way of walking, with his feet turned out
like a Scottish dancer’s travelling step. She smiled across the room at him.
The weather cleared up later and they were able to go and see the open-air amphitheatre.
‘This is one of the best preserved amphitheatres that we have,’ he told her. ‘But then I
suppose you’re used to Roman amphitheatres.’ He took her hand and led her into
the middle, their feet squelching on the grass. The wind was beginning to get
up again. ‘Have you been to Rome often?’
‘I have, yes. My older sister Gabriella lives there now – she’s married to an Italian
journalist. Me and my mother are going out there for Christmas.’
‘Oh. Christmas, I see.’ His face fell. ‘How long will you be away?’
‘Not that long. You’ll be in Cardiff with your family?’
He sighed. ‘Oh yes. One big happy family, us. You’ll have to come and meet them before the end
of term, I guess.’
‘No there isn’t, is there?’ He grinned. ‘Are you warm enough, Ellie?’
‘Just a little on the chilly side,’ she admitted. Her coat was still damp from the morning.
‘Well let’s go and see the baths, then we can get the bus back.’
It wasn’t until they got back to Alec’s room that Eleanor finally dried out. He lent her
a huge, thick green sweater which she snuggled into, while he investigated
what food he had. He suggested bacon and eggs for supper, which sounded good to
‘So what’s so peculiar about your family?’ she said several hours later, as she lay propped
up on the pillow in his bed.
He stretched out his foot and hooked it round her legs, placing his hand on her stomach.
‘You are incredibly beautiful, you know. I can’t believe that someone as lovely
as you should want to –’
‘Don’t change the subject – you haven’t answered my question, Alec. Go on, I’m interested.
I’ve never had much in the way of family.’
He sighed. ‘How long have you got? Well there’s my father – he gets these terrible
nightmares. Always has, as long as I can remember. He was at Monte Cassino
during the war but he never talks about it. No one is allowed to mention it,
ever. I mean, seriously, ever. My little sister Roz tried to, once. He
‘Did he really?’
‘We didn’t know what hit us. My Mum rushed him away upstairs, and he didn’t speak to any
of us for a week. Oh and I’ve got a mysterious uncle that we never talk about
either. But never mind about all that now – would you like to…?’
She smiled and put her arms around his neck. ‘Yes, that would be nice,’ she said, kissing his
* * *
By the time Alec reluctantly took Eleanor to meet his parents, it was already December and
his mother Barbara was hanging elaborate decorations on what struck
Eleanor as a very early Christmas tree. They lived in a huge house in Lisvane,
set back from the road with an enormous front garden, an even bigger one at the
Barbara paused briefly, put down the bowl of baubles and pushed the hair back from her face.
‘Oh hallo there. You must be…?’
‘This is Eleanor, Mum. I did tell you.’
‘So sorry. I’m good with names, but Charlie, that’s my other son,’ she went on, sticking her hand
out briefly. ‘Charlie brings back a different girl every fortnight; I simply
can’t keep up with them!’
‘Is Charlie around?’ There was a distinct note of hesitation in Alec’s question.
‘Oh yes, he’s here somewhere. Supposed to be revising for his Mock A Levels but you know
Charlie. Probably playing the guitar.’
Charlie was her favourite, obviously.
As Barbara stretched up to hang a big golden globe near the top of the tree, her foot
slipped. ‘Damn!’ She clutched at Alec’s arm. ‘I can’t quite reach. Could you be
Alec took the bauble off her and hung it as high as he could. ‘Chin up, old bean!’ he cried
with a grin, and Barbara gave a great guffaw at what Eleanor took to be some
obscure private family joke, as indeed it was.
‘Now look, darlings,’ Barbara said, getting her breath back. ‘Do you mind leaving me in
peace for half an hour? I must get these blooming decorations finished
while Norman is out, else he’ll come back and want it done differently.’
When Eleanor knew the family better, she realised that this was unlikely, for Norman never
criticised anything that Barbara had already decided. Barbara Jenkins was the
kind of British woman against whom Eleanor had always nursed an irrational
prejudice; to her, Barbara conveyed effortless superiority.
After supper, as Eleanor tried to help clear away the meal, Barbara remarked casually, ‘I
hear that you are of mixed parentage.’ She made it sound like an unfortunate
‘I don’t really approve of mixed marriages, although my younger brother Ian did marry…’
She snatched a saucepan which Eleanor was trying to put away on a shelf. ‘No,
no – that doesn’t go there. Here, you’d better wash – I’ll never find anything
if you put things in the wrong place! But at least both your parents are
European, I gather – which is more than can be said for my poor sister-in-law,’
she went on. ‘Are your parents happy together?’
‘They were happy, for twenty-five years. Then my father died.’
‘Oh I see.’ Barbara sniffed. ‘Well, there’s exceptions to every rule.’
Back in college Eleanor drew a sketch of the big house in Lisvane, isolated from the
outside world; sketching had always been her way of remembering things that
happened to her. She made the ivy cover the whole house, instead of just the corner where Barbara had
trained it. She drew Charlie’s music certificates hanging over the fireplace in
the living room, lovingly placed there by his mother. Then she drew the
individual bedrooms, each with its separate occupant, oblivious of the other members
of the family.
Charlie had turned up late for supper, dashing in as Barbara was dishing out potatoes,
pulling on a jersey and explaining that he had to go out in half an hour
because he had a hot date. He was shorter than Alec, with thick blond hair, and
he had the same gable-end eyebrows as his brother. Where had they come from,
Eleanor wondered; Norman had them too, but not so prominently. Charlie grinned
cheerfully at Eleanor and squeezed into a place next to her. ‘Mind if I sit
here, my Sunshine?’
A curious thing struck Eleanor: on the walls and shelves of Barbara’s home there were
dozens of photos of the three children at various stages of their life, as you
would expect. There were also a few of Barbara’s family – younger brother Ian,
parents and so on, even one of her parents’ wedding in 1924. But there was not
one single picture anywhere in the house of Norman’s youth or the family he
Eleanor drew Norman, smoking a large brown pipe which smelt of vanilla. He was a quiet man,
not given to interrupting – but then he’d been married to Barbara for so long
he’d probably forgotten how to, Eleanor thought. Barbara had a useful habit of
never quite finishing a sentence so that you didn’t know when it was all right to put your own thoughts into the
It was Norman who explained to Eleanor why Barbara’s brother Ian was a significant family
member. ‘The wife’s brother had to live with us when we married,’ he said,
puffing on his pipe. ‘He was only eleven at the time. Father died at Dunkirk,
mother copped a V2 bomb right at the end of the war. Barbara’s very good with
‘Is he still around?’ Eleanor asked, hoping the conversation would last so she could enjoy
the smell of vanilla.
‘Oh no, he upped and went off to Nigeria to lecture in economics. Married a half-Indian
lass from Cardiff – Val, they call her. Pleasant girl I’ve always thought,
though Barbara didn’t take to her for some reason.’
‘Why was that?’
‘Never fathomed out why. This Valerie already had a boy before she married Ian, nice
little lad called Matt, same age as our Roz. Then they had another boy.’
‘Though why they wanted to go off and live in Nigeria, for goodness sake…’ Barbara came
into the room with a tray of coffee and caught the end of her husband’s remarks.
‘I shall never know. I’ve always thought there were plenty of beautiful places
in our own country that we haven’t seen yet – no need to go to the ends of the
earth! Milk, Eleanor? Oh I do hope you don’t take sugar – I’m afraid we’re
clean out.’ She poured out the coffee carefully – Eleanor couldn’t imagine
Barbara ever spilling anything. ‘No we’ve never been to Nigeria, Norman and I,’ Barbara went on.
‘Norman doesn’t travel.’ She made her husband sound like a delicate type of
wine. ‘But Alec, now, I believe he’s thinking of going next year some time.’
When term finished Eleanor stayed on for a few days in Cardiff.
‘My poor brother – he’ll be so disappointed that you’re off to Italy for Christmas. I
don’t suppose he’s even got inside your knickers yet,’ Charlie said cheerfully.
He was strumming on his guitar upstairs while his brother and sister were
fetching mistletoe from the garden centre for Barbara. ‘Bit backward, is young
She said nothing.
‘Sorry, sorry! None of my business! But you do look extra gorgeous when you blush, my
Sunshine.’ He reached across to pick up another book of music. ‘Suppose we
ought to have something Christmassy now… Have you met our Milly, by the way?’
‘Not yet. Alec mentioned her.’
‘Mousy girl. Wears beige a lot.’ Charlie played a falling series of chords, ending with a
dull thud. ‘Goes to Howells School for Young Ladies, where they have to wear
posh gloves. It’s her eighteenth birthday just before Christmas.’
Barbara was most insistent that the whole family should go to Milly’s birthday party, which
was to be held in the local community hall. ‘Such a shame you are going away,
dear,’ she said to Eleanor with a brief smile.
‘Oh no she isn’t – your flight’s not ‘til the twenty-second,
Ellie!’ Alec remembered. ‘You can still come to the party.’
‘Well I’m not sure…’ Eleanor said.
Charlie groaned. ‘It’ll go on ‘til all hours, if I know Milly’s friends. The Hooray
Henriettas. You’ll have to stay the night here, Sunshine. You can’t possibly go
back into town in the middle of the night. Eleanor can have the spare room,
can’t she, Mum?’
Barbara breathed in. ‘Yes I suppose so, if I move out all the Christmas presents I’m
storing there. Give me time – I’ll find somewhere. It’s not as if I’ve got
anything else to occupy me, the week before Christmas. Fifty Russians arriving
first week of January, all needing me to find accommodation, but worry ye not.’
* * *
Charlie brought his guitar to the party and spent most of the evening in the kitchen of
the community hall entertaining the hired teenagers who were there to serve
food and wash up. Since Eleanor didn’t know anyone else at the party, she found
the kitchen the most comfortable place to be. Norman too gravitated there after
‘Far too many people here,’ he grumbled, perching himself on a stool by the oven and lighting
his pipe. ‘Who the hell are they all?’ The pipe’s familiar vanilla smell filled
the kitchen, mingling with other smells of cocktail sausages in the oven and
melted cheese on spicy pizzas.
Eleanor looked out through the hatch at the swirling mass of
party-goers. In the middle of the room was the Birthday Girl herself: Milly
Pryce-Roberts, eighteen today, small and pale, in a light brown dress which as
Charlie pointed out, really didn’t do very much for her. She seemed overwhelmed
by all the attention and fuss – and Eleanor couldn’t help feeling for her.
Everyone kept piling gifts into her arms as they arrived, elaborately wrapped,
and no one gave her time to unwrap them.
Alec was over there with Milly, smiling, trying to help with the presents, offering to put
some of them on the table by the window. He could see how embarrassed she was
by the concentration of interest in her.
Eventually he came out to the kitchen to fetch Eleanor. ‘You must come and say hallo properly
to Milly,’ Alec said, and took her by the hand.
‘Oh, hi,’ Milly said shyly when they pinned her down. ‘I’ve heard about you. You’re at
the university, aren’t you?’
Eleanor nodded. ‘Great party you’re having,’ she said, trying to sound encouraging.
Milly grimaced. ‘My parents organised it all.’
A fair amount of wine found its way to the kitchen, and by the end of the evening – which as
Charlie had predicted was well after midnight – Eleanor found it quite
impossible to sleep, although the bed in the little spare room was adequate,
better in fact than the bed her sister gave her in Rome. She tossed around for
an hour or so, then finally she sat up and switched on the rickety old table lamp. It swayed precariously – oh
God breaking Barbara’s table lamp would be the final straw – and she only
just managed to rescue it.
She stretched out to retrieve her sketchpad from her bag. One of those nights when the events
of the day crowd in on you, chasing each other round and round your head; no
point just lying there letting them, might as well commit them to paper. It was
cold in the spare room; the radiator was minimal, and she put on a thick
She began with a neat little sketch of Milly herself, her pale thin hair swept back in an
old-fashioned bun. How many of Milly’s own friends had come, Eleanor wondered.
Or did she have friends? She struck Eleanor as a solitary, shy person.
And where was Charlie in all this? Why had he sat it out in the kitchen for so long – did
Milly mind that? Later in the evening when the live band arrived on the stage
and people began to dance, Charlie had emerged and grabbed Milly’s hand to
persuade her to dance, but after a while he’d gone on to some of the other
girls. He had danced with Eleanor too.
As Eleanor began to sketch the dance floor with assorted couples strewn across it, there
was a sudden crash from outside the spare room – what on earth was it? Much too
loud for a door being banged, surely?
She put down the pad and tiptoed to the door, opening it cautiously. The landing was
completely dark – thick curtains drawn, and no light left on.
Suddenly there was a blood-curdling shout from a room at the far end of the landing.
‘Oh my God, the planes… They’re coming in early! I can’t… Stanley, can’t you see? The bombs, they’re huge. Look, they’re dropping on the
mountain! Stop them, Stan, must stop them… The bomb doors – opening – dozens of
Someone screamed, and Eleanor realised that it was Norman.
‘Get the refugees out! For God’s sake… They promised. They’re going straight for the
Abbey… They promised they wouldn’t…’
Was he all right?
‘Listen, can’t you hear? Stan, what shall I do? I don’t know… The ground, it’s shaking. Can’t
you feel it? Hundreds of people trying… Choking in the dust. That man, look,
with the child. Stop! Oh God, that wall is coming down…’ And he screamed again.
Eleanor stood riveted to the spot, the flesh on the back of her neck tingling. Where was
The door at the end of the landing opened and a crack of light appeared. It must be Barbara
– and at once Eleanor closed her own door as silently as possible and crept
back to bed, extinguishing the table lamp. The woman was obviously in control,
whatever she was up to, and Eleanor was quite certain that she would not want
to encounter the visitor on her travels around the darkened house.
* * *
Alec phoned five times while Eleanor was in Rome. He didn’t manage Christmas day itself –
the lines were blocked.
‘He seems quite keen, this boy,’ her sister remarked after
the third call. They were shopping in the market for some fish. ‘Mum was
Eleanor turned to Gabriella. ‘Typical! You and Mum have been gossiping about me as usual,
‘Us? Gossip? We wouldn’t dream of it… But you have, you know, happened to bring him into the
conversation once or twice while you’ve been here.’
‘No I haven’t! Well only when we took the children to the Colosseum on Friday. I may have told
you that Alec and I went to the amphitheatre at Caerleon a few weeks ago. It
reminded me, seeing the Colosseum again, so obviously I mentioned it.’
Gabriella laughed and put the hood up over her baby’s pushchair; it looked like rain.
‘Yes, and when I decided to do a roast chicken the day you and Mum arrived, you
told us how this wonderful Alec of yours puts marmalade on chicken when he
‘You know you did.’ Gabriella took her sister’s arm, pushing the pushchair with one hand. ‘I’ve
never heard you talk about a boy like this before. You’ve always been so
casual. When we were at school, there was that lad – what was his name? I
forget. Anyway, that other one, the one with the horrendous hair. And a few
more. Oh, and the one whose mother collected stamps.’
‘Oh, him! We only went out three times.’
‘That’s what I mean. So the wonderful new Alec, how long have you known him?’
‘Ten weeks and three days. Roughly.’
Gabriella looked at her. ‘It’s serious, isn’t it?’
Eleanor hesitated. ‘I don’t know, Gabby. It feels kind of right.’
‘Yes? Mum thinks he sounds terribly young.’
‘Oh for God’s sake! He’s the same age as me. I don’t feel young. Anyway, what about you – you
were twenty when you married Giulio: I don’t seem to remember Mum worrying
about how young you were.’
‘That’s different – Giulio’s Italian. Of course Mum wanted me to marry a nice Italian
boy from a family she knew! This is quite different.’ Gabriella parked the
pushchair in front of a large fish stall. ‘Little Sister…’
‘You will be careful, won’t you?’
* * *
Alec turned up at Heathrow when Eleanor returned, on a flight that was delayed six hours.
She was alone, for her mother had arranged to stay on another fortnight with Gabriella and the
children. Eleanor walked into the arrivals hall feeling quite exhausted and
fretful from sitting for six hours in Fiumicino. The food on the flight had
been distinctly disappointing; she’d been hoping that prosciutto e melone would
make up for the delay, but prosciutto was apparently off.
‘Eleanor! Over here…’ Alec shouted.
He flung his arms round her and kissed her. ‘I’ve missed you so much. And I want to tell you
this great idea I’ve had.’
He picked up Eleanor’s suitcase. ‘You know my Uncle Ian lives in Nigeria with his family?
I’m going out to see them in the Easter vacation.’
‘Yes, you said.’ Eleanor assumed that Barbara would be paying for Alec to go out to see
‘My Dad says he’ll pay for both of us to go, if you want to!’
She turned to look at him.
‘You don’t mean both as in you and me?’
‘Certainly do! Won’t cost much, only the flights – we’ll be staying with Ian and Val. They’ve
got this huge house on campus. Say you’ll come, my darling!’
‘Oh no, Alec – I couldn’t possibly. I haven’t got any spare money.’
‘Not a problem – I told you, Dad’ll pay for the flights, and then we just stay with Ian and
Val. I’ve got a bit of money saved for trips and stuff, you don’t need to
worry. Please come! At least think about it…’