Peter Masters found his reserved seat on the train, hoisted his old green bergen rucksack up onto the luggage rack, and sat down with a sigh of relief.
It had been another long and tedious week in the City, and he was really looking forward to spending the weekend with his best friend Mark and Claire, his wife. He'd quickly changed out of his work suit into cords and a pullover before leaving the office dead on four o'clock, earning the odd curious or envious look on the way out.
The pay was pretty good for a commodities analyst – nothing outrageous, but more than enough to keep him interested if not one-hundred-percent excited – but the work was often repetitive, with an eye for detail essential. He specialised in mining activities, and with the current worldwide recession affecting metal and commodity prices, only the companies with the easiest extraction were trading profitably. That meant that the market was very volatile; the slightest news about industrial confidence or commodity prices was enough to spark a sudden wave of buying or selling mining shares, which in turn required great concentration on the part of an analyst paid to be on top of things.
His speciality also required paying special attention to the Far Eastern markets, because the slightest sign of any drop in the crazy rate of growth of the Chinese economy pushed back commodity prices (and vice-versa), and that meant early starts in the office, so that he was on the ball with the overnight moves by the time the London Stock Exchange started trading each morning around eight o'clock. The effects of working too many hours built up, and he was often knackered by Friday, and in dire need of a break. At least this weekend would be different!
It was absolutely great to get well away from the office for a couple of days, even better to be staying with old friends out of London. He had been looking forward to this weekend ever since they'd invited him to stay. Peter had been the Best Man a couple of years earlier at Mark and Claire's wedding, and had got on very well with Claire from the start. They hadn't met up for a few months, not since Mark's last move, and it would be great to see them again.
He quickly composed and sent a text to say that he was on the train, and almost immediately received an acknowledgement from Mark that he'd see him at the station as arranged.
The train out of London was packed, no more than usual for a Friday night, but at least he had a seat and could doze for a while. There was the usual jolt as the engine took up the slack, and the train slipped slowly out of Paddington, gathering speed as it reached the end of the platform.
It was always interesting to look out of the windows at the streets of London moving past; although the view was frequently interrupted by a local service running past the express, it was fascinating to see what people did with their tiny back gardens. Some were riots of colour, others a wilderness of weeds, abandoned furniture, building materials or old cars. There were private roof gardens, balconies and window boxes, and always that sea of chimney pots going off into the distance. It always reminded him of the scene in 'Mary Poppins' where the sweeps danced on the roofs, or indeed 'The Aristocats' looking out over the sleeping town.
The train eventually left London and wound up to cruising speed, and Peter closed his eyes. He wouldn't sleep, but he could relax and unwind. It would be good to catch up with his previous career. Mark had recently been posted to the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters at the former RAF Innsworth north of Gloucester for two years; from what he had said, the job was actually really interesting and, best of all, didn't involve working weekends.
Mark had met Claire at a family wedding during one of the periods of leave after returning from Iraq; they had immediately hit it off, and had themselves got married the next year. That ceremony was the last time that Peter had worn his Blues, sword and medals; he had left the Army a month later. Claire had put her own career on hold to stay with Mark; with internet access she could at least keep working instead of having to actually give up the job to move to wherever the powers that be sent her husband, better than the lack of options open to most Service wives – and of course husbands these days!
Peter occasionally wondered what his life would have been like if he too had chosen to stay in the Army, but then remembered the all-too frequent tours in Iraq and Afghanistan that had put him off extending his commission as his CO had encouraged him to do. He was getting to the stage where he wanted to settle down, find a wife and raise a family, and sitting in a fortified bunker for more than half the year, living in a Portacabin behind wriggly tin and razor wire, was no way to meet Miss Right.
He smiled to himself. His current routine of getting into the office by half past six in the morning, and often staying past seven at night wasn't going to find Miss or Ms Right either! Mind you, at the age of twenty-nine there was still plenty of time; or so he kept telling his mother and smugly married younger sister!
Two hours after leaving Paddington, in a much less crowded carriage, came the conductor's announcement for Gloucester station. It was ridiculous how, given all the advances in digital technology, the on-board tannoy system was still almost as inaudible as it had been when he'd first been on a train almost two decades earlier. The trains were now really showing their age, and Great Western Trains weren't known for spending money without a very good reason.
Peter stood up, picked down his bergen, and moved towards the door as he felt the train slow.
It was sometimes hard to believe that a new and unrelated 'Great Western' franchise now ran the routes that Isambard Kingdom Brunel had built. One of the reasons Peter had wanted to be a civil engineer was a childhood holiday spent at Saltash in Cornwall, where the Royal Albert Bridge took the railway line over the River Tamar. Peter still vividly remembered looking up at the bold lettering over the entrance arch "I K Brunel – Engineer – 1859" and marvelling at the structure. He'd done a school dissertation on Brunel, and the amazing variety of problems that he'd tackled – bridges, tunnels, ships and railway stations, almost all of which were still in use – if you counted the S.S. Great Britain safely restored to Bristol Harbour. Peter hadn't been born in 1970 when the hulk of Brunel's greatest ship was towed back from the Falkland Islands, but when he'd read the story of her rescue and conservation, he'd been sufficiently enthused to make a special trip to see the old lady in her custom-built shelter in the dry dock. Crikey, dry was the word – they'd told him that the humidity inside the enclosure was now similar to the Arizona desert.
He wasn't sufficiently lost in his thoughts to not be ready to leap out onto the platform as soon as the train came to a halt. Mark was waiting for him outside the station as arranged, and after they had greeted each other, he led him towards the car.
"Great to see you! It's been far too long!"
"Too right! How's Claire?"
"Good, thanks. She's almost finished personalising the quarter, and she'll be delighted to have some guests."
"Guests with a plural s?"
"Yup, she's invited a friend of hers down. I'm afraid that it's a bit of matchmaking on Claire's part, but she's a really nice girl, so I hope you'll not be offended?"
"No, as long as Claire doesn't expect us to ride off into the sunset together tomorrow night!"
"Hmmmm. I THINK Claire vaguely realises that the two of us were rather unusual in realising that we had something special so quickly, but part of her still firmly believes in love at first sight for everyone. Don't for heavens sake disappoint her by not even trying to chat her friend up!"
"Oh well, I'll try to let her down gently. Mind you, if both of you like the girl, that's a good sign. My love life is pretty non-existent at the moment!"
"What, no gorgeous young secretaries after you for your money?"
"Nah, as a lowly analyst I'm near the bottom of the salary ladder, and even the most desperate gold-digger will aim higher than me. Not that we have that many young women working in my section – most of them are older and more stable; analysis is too important to be left to the impulsive type – or too boring to attract them."
Mark was quiet for a moment as he negotiated the City Centre junctions and some roadworks, and then started talking again once they were clear of the obstacles.
"Anyway, apart from the lack of available tottie, how is the wonderful world of international finance?"
"Not very international at the moment! No freebie fact-finding trips anywhere, and the time difference with New York means that I'm often in the office well into the evening if anything important is going on! I got a few glares for sloping off this afternoon before the Stock Exchange closed, but nothing I can influence is going to happen in the last hour of trading for this week, and anything that pops up tonight in New York I'll deal with before business opens on Monday, when I'm looking at the Far East and you're still fast asleep in your bed."
"So not a lot of change from the Army then?"
"Better money, every weekend off, and nobody shooting at us, yet."
"I think there was a time when a lot of people wanted to line everyone who worked in the City up against a wall!"
"That time may not yet have passed! The gossip is that there's a lot more behind the LIBOR rate-rigging scandal than has come out so far."
Mark grunted in agreement as the traffic light changed to green and he moved off.
"Anyway, do I know this girl that Claire is trying to set me up with? Was she at your wedding?"
"You mean does she already know what a bloody awful dancer you are? Sadly not; she was working as an intern in New York so couldn't make it to the wedding – a pity, as Claire badly wanted her to be a bridesmaid. They've known each other for years."
"What's her name?"
"Belinda. She does something in scientific publishing, up Coventry way. Bright girl, attractive, articulate, probably not your type at all."
"Oh, thanks, mate. I know the square root of bugger all about publishing. I'll probably display my ignorance, and she'll end up texting a friend instead of listening to me waffle on all evening!"
"Don't be so bloody negative, it will give you something to talk about! You can use your newfound analytical skills to tease the facts out of her and see if she's worth investing in!"
"Oh well, at least her house broker has issued a 'buy' note!"
They both laughed; like most people who have served in the military together, they shared a dry sense of humour and delighted in using buzz words and technical terms completely out of context.
They had arrived at the entrance to the married quarters, and Mark turned in.
"Yeah, it's an old RAF station, they seem to have a higher proportion of 'pads', so lots of quarters. This is where we mere mortals of Captains live; there's a much more glorified street for the crusty Colonels and above, and there are a whole load of those about! Anyway, here we are."
Mark pulled the car into the drive of a solid brick semi-detached married quarter; identical to all the others along the road apart from the contents of the garden. It was clear that the previous owners had left the garden in good nick; there were plentiful flowers in beds along the sides of the drive, and a few bright red geraniums in pots under the front windows showed that the current tenant had an interest too.
There was a little red Ford Ka in the driveway already, and Mark parked behind it. He reached up to the sun visor and put his car pass on the dashboard, where it would be visible to any security patrol.
"Oh good, Belinda must have arrived."
They entered the house; Mark led the way through to the kitchen, where Claire was at the old-fashioned electric cooker, stirring an aromatic casserole which was sitting on the top.
"Hi, Peter, just let me put this back in the oven, two ticks!"
Peter bent down and removed two bottles of wine and a box of chocolate gingers from his bergen, placing them on the table. Claire shut the oven door and moved to Peter, giving him a welcoming hug and a kiss on both cheeks.
"Oh, it's so good to see you! You're looking really well!"
"Thanks, so are you! That smells delicious, I'm starving!"
"I hope it tastes as good! Don't worry, it won't be long. Just dump your bergen by the stairs; Belinda's only just got here, she's having a quick bath and change, and she'll be down shortly."
"Mark warned me; I promised that I'd be good!"
"We were sure you wouldn't mind. Anyway, thanks for the wine – ooh and chocolate ginger as well! You know I can't resist it!"
The three of them sat at the table chatting, catching up on mutual friends and acquaintances while they waited for Claire's guest to join them.
There was a light thumping noise as the girl came down the stairs, and they all turned to the door as she came in. Peter stood up to be introduced.
The girl was a pretty brunette in her early- to mid-twenties, of medium height, her attractive figure highlighted by the fitted jeans and striped top she was wearing. The smile on her face vanished as she saw Peter, and she stopped short of the table.
There was an awkward silence. Mark, who had expected Peter to introduce himself, quickly tried to defuse the awkward situation.
"Belinda, this is my best friend Peter Masters."
The blank face of the girl turned into a frown. She still said nothing, and glared at Peter as if he was a piece of dog-shit that she had found on her shoe.
Peter too was no longer smiling in welcome. He finally spoke, hesitantly and with none of the normal lively tone in his voice.
"Hello, Belinda, how are you keeping?"
"Don't you 'hello Belinda' me, you bastard! I hoped I'd never see you again in my life!"
The expressions on Mark and Claire's faces were of shock and horror.
"Do you two know each other?"
"Oh yes! This is the bastard who got my sister pregnant and then dumped her!"
"Belinda, that simply isn't true!"
"You're still lying, Peter Masters, like the cowardly boy you always were."
Peter's fists automatically clenched as he heard the insult. Not that he had ever hit a woman, or ever would. He wasn't the type.
Mark quickly stepped between them.
"Stop it, you two! I'm not having a fight in my house."
Peter took a deep breath; his face bright red, but his temper under control.
"I think it's best if I leave now, Mark. Could you please call me a taxi?"
"Yeah, run away again, just like you did from Ginny!"
It was clear that Peter was fighting hard to keep his cool.
"That's what she may have told you, but you've only heard her side of the story."
"She's not a liar, unlike you!"
Peter turned on his heels, and left the room. Mark followed him into the hall, as did Belinda's taunting laugh. Mark shut the door behind him and turned to his guest.
"SHIT! I'm so sorry, mate, we simply had no idea! We thought the two of you would get on well."
"We would have done, if her sister had been able to keep her legs together. But she couldn't, and then blamed me. I wasn't even in the country at the time!"
"Are you quite sure you won't stay?"
Peter laughed too, a bitter and haunting sound, with no trace of mirth or amusement.
"Oh no, you heard Belinda yourself. Her sister Virginia can do no wrong! She will never believe me if I try to explain what really happened, and I'm not subjecting you two to listening to that load of shite all weekend. She's probably unpacked and I haven't, so I'll go. You phone for a taxi, and I'll grab my stuff."
"Bugger the taxi! I'll run you to the station myself; I want to hear your side of the story."
Peter picked up his bergen; he'd only undone the top pocket to get out the wine and chocolates, and his training had automatically ensured that it was securely done up again, so that he was ready to bug out at a moments notice if surprised by an enemy.
He almost smiled at the thought; he was indeed bugging out, there was no point staying and trying to fight such irrational hostility. Damn the girl! He'd really been looking forward to catching up and relaxing with Mark and Claire. Why had Claire's friend turned out to be bloody Ginny's little sister?
"You go and wait by the car; I'll just let Claire know what I'm doing."
Mark was only gone a minute before Claire rushed out of the front door and hugged Peter.
"Oh god, Peter, I'm so sorry – I don't know what to say! Belinda's almost hysterical! Thanks for being so decent; please come up another weekend to stay? Promise?"
"Yes, of course I will. Be nice to her, will you? It's not her fault."
"I've never seen her like that before. Mark is looking really unimpressed; I just hope that they don't have words before I can find out what's going on. I'd better get back to her. Now remember, you promised – see you soon!"
With another kiss, Claire ran back into the house, and a minute later Mark came out and unlocked the car.
As they were leaving the camp, and Mark was tucking his car pass under the sun visor, he turned to Peter and broke the awkward silence.
"There are another three trains tonight; why don't we have a curry before you go? Then I'll be able to assure Claire that you have eaten a proper meal. She was really looking forward to playing the hostess; she's got a great new casserole recipe, and she'd made some choux pastry buns for pud. We're both really gutted that you've decided that you're the one who has to go, but thank you for solving the awkward problem for us, and saving me the embarrassment of ejecting Claire's friend."
Peter thought for a moment. His quick brain had made the right decision to back away from a confrontation with a semi-hysterical woman, but there was no reason for him to hurry back to London with his tail between his legs.
"Thanks, a curry would be really nice, because I skipped lunch and I'm harry raveners – but are you quite sure you haven't got to go back home to help Claire?"
"Oh, positive. Much better to stay with you for a couple of hours. I'm not at all happy with Belinda's behaviour to a fellow guest in my house, and I'd better calm down before I really tear a strip off her and upset both of them; and I also reckon Claire will stand a better chance of finding out what has been going on without me there. I'll send her a quick text to eat without us."
Mark drove quietly for a few more minutes before parking up in a side street.
"It looks pretty grotty on the outside, but the food's authentic and good; I think you'll enjoy it."
"You've only let me down a few times on food, so I'll trust you!"
Mark locked the bergen in the car boot out of sight, and checked that the car was indeed locked.
After negotiating a double entry door with the mandatory uneven doormat, Peter found himself in a warm room filled with the scent of real spices freshly prepared; always a good sign. They were welcomed by a smiling Asian man in starched white shirt and bow tie, and shown to a small table for two against the wall.
Peter looked around; there were a few other diners, but most tables were still laid and awaiting the later customers.
"Most of the locals get a few beers in before venturing in here; come eleven o'clock they'll be queuing at the door!"
Mark ordered two draught lagers, and they studied the menu.
"I wouldn't go for the hot ones if I were you, mate – they've realised that there's good money to be made from idiots competing to eat the hottest curry, and some of them will really give you ring-burn in the morning!"
The lagers arrived immediately.
While Peter was studying the options, Mark quickly sent a text to Claire to let her know that he would be eating out and that she and Belinda were to have supper without him.
Their order given, Mark turned to his friend.
"So what was all that about with Belinda?"
"Well, it's a long story. Her sister Ginny was at University with me, and we got quite serious as in boyfriend / girlfriend, although of course with joining the Army there was no possibility of my getting married for a few years, so we never got officially engaged. I used to go back with Ginny to her home quite often, and of course got to know Belinda as well. She was about sixteen or seventeen at the time, but a really nice kid."
"So where did it go wrong?"
"The second summer, when we were apart for the whole of the holidays because of my commitments. You know that I got a University Bursary?"
"Yeah, so did I. It made Sandhurst a whole lot easier, having that basic military experience before going on the Commissioning Course. The extra money from attending the OTC really helped as well; I'd have turned up for every training weekend even if it hadn't been a requirement of the Bursary."
"Well, that summer when Ginny got herself pregnant was completely crazy for me. As well as my Army commitments, I had to do the University practical Geological Mapping assignment in the holidays. Once the second year exams were over, I went straight off to OTC Summer Camp for two weeks. Ginny went home, then to the Glastonbury Festival with some friends, and then they all trooped off to Cornwall where one of them had a family holiday cottage. I had a week at home sorting things out, but Ginny was still away, and then I had to go and do my mapping – six weeks in Slovakia in the Carpathian Mountains, miles from anywhere."
"God, that was a strange place to choose – why there?"
"Oh, Prof had stumbled on one of those European Commission coherence schemes; he got a grant which paid all our living and travel expenses, and also covered a couple of Slovakian post-graduates to study for PhDs while they digitised our maps and compared them to the old ones – a lot of the information had been a state secret during the Communist years, so they wanted an updated assessment."
"Okay, and then what?"
"I went home for another week to do all my washing and get my kit together, still no Ginny, and then it was off to Germany for a fortnight to do my attachment with the Armoured Engineer Regiment."
"So that was nine, ten, twelve weeks? Ginny can't have been happy with not seeing you for that long?"
"Nope. Actually, she was furious that I was going to be away most of the summer, which I think is why she played silly buggers at the times when we COULD have been together. I phoned and emailed her as much as I could, but I didn't actually see her in person for three months, despite being available for those two weeks when I was as home. She could also easily have come out to Slovakia and stayed with me for a bit, but she went off to Florida with her family instead."
"So when did you find out that she was pregnant?"
"I went down to see her a few days after I got back from Germany, that would have been the third week in September, and her parents were really off-hand when I arrived. They had been reasonably friendly up until then, but this time there was a definite frostiness. Her Dad marched me straight off to his study for an interview without coffee, and asked me point-blank what I intended to do. Naturally, I hadn't got a clue what he was talking about. So he told me."
"Bloody hell! Was he mad?"
"Mad? He was furious! He called me all sorts of names and said that I had ruined his daughters life."
"So what did you do?"
"Well, once I had recovered from the shock, I asked him what he expected me to do. That set him off again, so I ignored all the crusty harrumphing and gave him the options of me marrying her or us arranging for an abortion so that she could finish her degree. Mind you, I wasn't sure that it wasn't too late for an abortion after three months, and I had no idea what Ginny's views would be, whether she'd want to keep it or not. And that's when it came out."
"What came out?"
"He said that there was still time to get married decently because she was only two months gone, and it didn't show. And then I finally clicked – Ginny had been off games at the end of the exams, and we definitely hadn't had sex in the three months since then, so the baby couldn't possibly be mine."
"Exactly! I couldn't prove it, of course, but I asked him again when it was due. He said April / May, I did some counting on my fingers, and realised that it was either an Immaculate Conception or that Ginny had been playing away during the holidays. So I told him that it wasn't mine and I wasn't going to marry her; he threw a complete wobbly and frogmarched me straight out of the house, and I haven't heard from her since. She didn't show up at University a week later, wouldn't answer my emails or calls to her mobile, and that was that."
"Holy fucking moley..."
"Precisely! I'm assuming that the stupid cow took up with someone else, either at Glastonbury, or in Cornwall, forgot to take her Pill regularly, and got herself up the duff. I should have realised that something was really wrong with our relationship when Ginny didn't make the slightest effort to be with me when she could have been."
"Well, you're clearly better off without her, and her Dad sounds a complete dickhead even if he was trying to protect his darling daughter."
"It's funny that; I'd never quite got on with her parents; they'd been nice enough, but not enthusiastic, as if I was just a passing fad that Ginny would grow out of. Her father was a bit pompous and self-important, as if I wasn't good enough for his daughter, and his mother has more shoes than Imelda Marcos."
"That's not a crime - all girls like their shoes. Claire's probably got a couple of dozen pairs."
"Not in their own hand-made bespoke American Maple dressing room, she hasn't!"
"Okay, you win that one. Maybe they do feel a cut above the rest of us!"
"It's Belinda I feel really sorry for; she was just a nice kid with no side to her, and was always great fun, but Ginny clearly hasn't told her the true story."
"You feel sorry for Belinda? She may have been upset and shocked at seeing you so unexpectedly, but she was well out of order screaming at you like that. Claire's going to try and find out what on earth made her do that. You two are our best friends, and we want to get this sorted out."
Peter took a gulp of his lager before asking the next question.
"Does Claire believe me or Belinda?"
"Belinda may be her oldest friend, but she knows you very well too, and I'm sure she believes you. Belinda has probably been fed a story by her sister and parents, and doesn't know any better."
"Yeah, I think that's probably the case too. Well, I'm not going to get blamed for winding Belinda up with my presence. I've never seen her behave like that, and I don't want to see it again; it really upset me if I'm honest. Please don't invite us both at the same time again."
"Okay, I get the message!"
The curry arrived; there was silence for a few minutes as the two friends ate. The food was indeed as good as Mark had promised. Enough spiciness to make the lager taste wonderfully refreshing, enough moisture to match the basmati rice, and the naan bread oily enough to satisfy his stomach. He certainly wouldn't feel hungry again for a few hours.
Their hunger abated, Peter looked at his watch to check how long he had before the train departed.
Mark noticed the gesture, and made up his mind.
"Sod this for a game of soldiers! I'm not having your entire weekend with us ruined by some lying bitch! I'll put you up in the Mess tonight, and then we can see how it goes. I want to see something of you, and I know Claire does too."
Peter, without thinking or hesitating, had jumped to the girl's defence.
"Belinda's not a lying bitch!"
Mark held up his hands to placate his friend.
"Woah there! I know, mate, I know, it's her sister who's been telling the porkies. I meant Ginny. But Belinda still didn't give you a chance to defend yourself; she just came out with all guns blazing. Hopefully Claire has calmed her down by now, and is trying to get some sense out of her."
Peter was reminded of how contemptuous Belinda had just been, and that coloured his response.
"Fat chance of that! She's probably been brainwashed. Her elder sister can do no wrong in their parents' eyes."
"Well, we'll see. Anyway, I'll take you over to the Mess and get you a room, and then at least you and I can have some time together tomorrow."
Mark paid the (very reasonable) bill over Peter's attempted objection, and they got back in the car.
Peter thought some more while Mark was driving back to the Officers' Mess.
He'd instinctively liked and felt sorry for Belinda all those years ago; she had lived in the shadow of her older sister and he'd deliberately tried to include her wherever possible in what they were doing; he'd realised after a couple of weekends at their house that Belinda must feel rather like the dustcart coming along after the Lord Mayor's Show had passed, compared to the way her parents fawned over their elder daughter. It probably wasn't her fault that she only saw one side of the argument; nor that she was loyal to her family, but by gum some of the things she'd said in her brief tirade had hurt!
Meanwhile, Claire had somehow managed to stop her friend from going into uncontrollable hysterics as a reaction to the emotions the unexpected meeting had aroused, and had sat her down on the sofa with a glass each of red wine from the bottle kindly provided by Peter. Belinda's glass was noticeably fuller than Claire's, but she was too distracted to notice – though she did comment on the quality.
Not that Claire mentioned the source of the wine. She was too tactful – and too worried that Belinda would cast it from her in temper, and leave her with a real cleaning problem if they were to avoid being charged for damage when marching out of the quarter at the end of the posting.
More importantly, she just couldn't understand how her husband's closest friend could be accused of something so dreadful. It went against everything she knew of Peter.
On the other hand, she'd known Belinda even longer, and couldn't believe the scene she had just witnessed. Her friend had been genuinely trying to be cruelly hurtful, and she'd never see her that way before.
"Belinda, darling, what on earth was that all about?"
Her friend took a great big gulp of wine before replying.
"He was Ginny's boyfriend at University. She got pregnant, he buggered off. End of."
It was clear that Belinda didn't want to discuss the subject. But Mark had made it clear, in only a few words, that he didn't believe Peter was capable of such behaviour. That was Claire's gut feeling too.
Claire's mobile phone buzzed to tell her that she'd received a text. She reached for it and looked at the screen.
"Mark says not to wait for him to get back, and to start dinner without him. Come on, you must be hungry."
"Yeah, I skipped lunch so I could get away early, and get past the NEC before the M42 went crazy. Those bloody variable speed limit signs can really screw everything up, even if they do keep things moving better than stop-start."
"I've heard about that scheme – but I don't think they plan to do it anywhere else?"
"I haven't seen it elsewhere, but knowing the Highways Agency, it will suddenly pop up where you aren't expecting it. Remember the Cones Hotline?"
Claire most certainly did, and let out a chuckle. Some blithering idiot had spent taxpayers' money on putting out thousands of signs giving you a freephone number to call the Highways Agency, so that you could report the traffic cones that the er – Highways Agency had put out themselves?
Claire switched off the electric oven and pulled out the casserole. It was an all-in dish with carrots and potatoes cooked in the gravy; she quickly doled out two helpings onto plates that stood warming on the top of the cooker. Belinda's moment of humour had vanished as if it had never been.
The two women sat at the kitchen table and silently picked at the food in front of them; neither was feeling particularly like eating with two empty places beside them, but they went through the motions. The bottle of Peter's wine was empty by the time they finished eating; which is more than could be said for their plates, or the thoughts that whirled round both their minds.
"Any more, darling?"
"Thanks, Claire, but no. As the man said, I've had an elegant sufficiency!"
"Okay. Let me just pile the plates by the sink, and we'll go and have a chat in the sitting room. I want to catch up on everything you've been up to since I saw you last."
"That won't take long! All work and no play makes Belinda a dull girl!"
"It can't be as bad as that!"
Belinda laughed for the first time since coming downstairs.
"No, I still really love the job, but with working with the New York office, who don't roll into work until at least lunch time over here, and then expect to be able to get hold of me despite the fact that I got in five hours before they did, means that most evenings I'm at work or logged into the emails from home until gone seven. Then it's home, something to eat, a bit of telly, and bed."
"Well, I'm jolly glad that you get your weekends off. I don't see enough of you."
"Yeah, and you probably won't want to see me again after that row with Peter. Mark looked really pissed off with me when he left."
"He's not a happy bunny, I'll tell you that for free. But why on earth did you fly off the handle like that? Mark and I couldn't believe it, not from you. You said some dreadful things to Peter, almost unforgiveable."
"Well, he WAS cowardly, leaving our house so quickly after hearing that Ginny was pregnant, not even saying 'goodbye' and then making absolutely no effort to contact her, or to offer to take some responsibility."
"Are you sure of that?"
"Yes, of course! Ginny never got any letters or cards from him, and he never phoned the house."
"What about her mobile or email?"
"She never said anything about hearing from him."
"I'm really surprised by that; he's not the type to just drop someone."
There was a moments silence.
Belinda lifted her head and looked at her old friend.
"Yeah, I suppose that is part of the reason I was so disappointed in him; I'd thought up until then that he was a really nice man and was far better than that."
Claire looked her friend in the eyes, noting the sadness which had replaced the anger.
"Don't tell me – you had a crush on him, didn't you? Is that why you were so upset?"
Belinda laughed, another nervous and strained laugh.
"I suppose I did! I only knew boys of my own age at school, and so Peter seemed much more mature and dependable. He was always very good to Ginny, and I remember that I hoped that I'd find as nice a boyfriend as she had."
"Did you see much of him?"
"Not really, only when they came back home for a weekend. Mum put Peter in the guest room so there wouldn't be any hanky panky, and they didn't go off together anywhere. He was pretty decent and included me in the conversation; I was just a gawky schoolgirl then, and he went out of his way to get to know me. I was sorry when I heard that they'd split up, but when they told me that Ginny was pregnant and Peter wasn't facing up to his responsibilities, I got as angry as the rest of them. Probably more so, because my idol proved to have feet of clay."
"And that was the first time you've seen him since then?"
"Yep, and the first opportunity to tell him what I thought of him. Anyway, enough of that – what have you been up to?"
The Officers' Mess building is inside the fenced perimeter of Imjin Barracks; Mark produced his car pass and identity card, and after a quick security check, and examination of the underside of the car with a light and mirror, the barrier was lifted, and they drove round to the Mess.
Mark parked in a marked space outside the front of the building, and they both got out of the car. Peter retrieved his bergen from the boot and easily hoisted it over one shoulder. It was several kilos lighter now that the wine and the chocolates had been delivered to his hostess. He chuckled to himself – he'd almost hoped that a chocolate ginger would stick in Belinda's throat and choke her, and that kind of thought was most unlike him!
"There are normally quite a lot of visitors to this place, so there shouldn't be any problem getting you a room at a weekend."
They entered the building and went left in the hall and into the bar; there were a couple of middle-aged men in suits or jacket and tie sitting there drinking and reading the newspapers. The middle-aged barmaid put down the paperback novel she was reading, got off her stool and came over to them.
"What can I get you, Captain Johnson?"
"I was hoping that you might be able to put Captain Masters here up for the night, please, Mrs Cox, and put it on my mess bill?"
"Oh, that's no problem at all. I'll get you a room key."
"Great! In that case could we please have a couple of pints of Wadworths?"
Mark wrote out and signed a chit, and passed it over in exchange for the glasses. They thanked the barmaid, and toasted each other, before moving to a couple of comfortable club armchairs by one of the windows, Peter taking his bergen with him and propping it up against his chair.
"Are there many living in?"
"No, only a couple of the permanent staff, and of course the people here on short attachments. Most of the bachelors are living out in town or one of the villages, and the bean stealers who are here during the week have all gone home to cut the grass and see if the family still recognise them. It's normally pretty quiet at weekends; though most people do come to the curry lunches and the other events – we had a very good wine tasting evening a couple of months back."
"You're lucky to have draught beer then. Do you remember that Mess in Ripon where they only had cans? Spitting distance from Tadcaster, and all they had was John Smiths and Carling in tins?"