The New Forest, 1922
‘Good grief, Alasdair, do you have to be so independent?’ Melissa glared at her husband as he continued to struggle with his stiff evening collar and bow tie, muttering under his breath. Softening her voice with affection, she continued, ‘Thomas would happily have stayed and helped you. After all, it is his job.’
Alasdair turned towards her voice and scowled. ‘I wanted to do it myself.’ And then, as if he realised that he sounded like a petulant schoolboy, he added, ‘It is just that I still feel so useless.’
Instantly contrite, Melissa crossed the room and hugged him. ‘Of course you’re not useless. I just wish sometimes you were not so stubborn – you seem determined to make things hard on yourself.’
‘It’s just I want to get the tie right. I suppose it is a complete mess.’
Standing back, she just could not help admiring the handsome man she loved as he stood in front of her, seemingly unaware of her scrutiny. Still with the air of command about him, even out of uniform and in his tails, crisp white shirt and tie. She looked at the tie critically, ‘Well, it is a little crooked; I wish you hadn’t sent Thomas away. I won’t be much help, haven’t the foggiest, I’ll have to get him to teach me.’
‘Well, do your best for heaven’s sake. If anyone else goes down with a crooked tie, it’ll be frowned upon, but if I do, it will be poor Alasdair can’t even get his tie right.’
Hearing his fear underlying the complaint, Melissa forced herself not to sigh. He hated sighing. ‘Oh, Alasdair, that is unfair. They are all, well nearly all, family here. No one is going to be judging you. Why should they? To them you are a war hero – one of the few that came back. We are here for a lovely weekend to be spoiled rotten by Brigadier Ferguson and Aunt Honor. Please try to enjoy yourself.’
‘Hmph,’ he muttered. ‘They may not be judging me, but I will be.’ He began pacing the room, reaching out and touching odd pieces of furniture, stopping and occasionally resting his hand and following the grain of the wood. ‘This is the same room we had last time?’
‘Yes, each time we have been.’ She bit her lip, remembering the first time they had visited after the war. Alasdair had been newly returned from St Dunstan’s Rehabilitation Centre. The Brigadier, ever the bluff, hale, hearty type had made some appalling gaffes, like asking if he could use a knife and fork. It had not been a success and had not been repeated for nearly a year. She glanced at Alasdair and realised he was waiting for her reply. ‘Yes, it is the same room. Aunt Honor thought it would be easier that way, and it is one of the bigger rooms, so we are in luck. A shame it is so full of these Victorian monstrosities.’ She patted the doors of the huge wardrobe. A wardrobe, she reflected, that an entire homeless family could have slept in.
A sense of guilt crept over her as she remembered the shabby tenement buildings they had passed and observed from the luxury of their first-class carriage on the train from London to the New Forest. Her uncle, generally known to all as Brigadier Ferguson, had sent his Rolls-Royce to pick them up from the station. With Thomas ensconced in the front with the chauffeur and the bags lashed to the rear, they had travelled in comfort and style. How could she reconcile the grime, smoke and struggle of London with the ease and space (acres of space in fact) at this weekend house party at Pennstone Manor? Pennstone was the home of her mother’s sister, Lady Honor, both of them born to privilege, the daughters of an earl. It had been quite a comedown when her aunt had married Reginald Ferguson, a young officer with few social connections. But he had risen high and now was at the centre of their formerly large family, sadly depleted by the war. She shuddered to think how one coped losing all your children over the space of a year.
She walked over to the window and gazed out, giving herself a quiet moment. Alasdair didn’t mean to make demands and was overly conscious of the burden he perceived himself to be, but as much as she loved him, it was sometimes waring pandering to his black moods. The window, huge by London standards, looked over the rear of the estate. The gardens displayed a dishevelled elegance as winter approached. Melissa noted in passing that many of the hedges could do with a trim. The main lawn needed a final cut. Beyond the formal gardens was a paddock leading down to, and blending into, the New Forest beyond. The leaves were beginning to turn, red and gold, a beauty that moved her. She gave a mental shrug; she refused to let this despairing mood descend. She was so happy to be here; her aunt and uncle were her favourite rellies and she adored the New Forest. Their visits had been few and far between since the war and after Alasdair’s discharge from the army on medical grounds. Still, he had been no slouch himself; his career had been curtailed at the rank of major. He refused to use the honorific and refused to leave their service flat in Bloomsbury. He cut himself off from his former friends, turning any away that came to call. Eventually they all stopped coming. The only people he saw, and then often under sufferance, were their respective families. However, he seemed to like Brigadier Ferguson and Pennstone Manor. This could have been because, even in autumn, it had a peace and tranquillity that eased his mind. Was that why he had surprised her and had not balked at her rather timid suggestion that they came here for a weekend away? Even when she had mentioned (with crossed fingers) that it was a small house party?
He stopped pacing. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Let’s get this over with and hit the cocktails.’
As they left their room, the sound of raised voices carried down the corridor from their host’s suite of rooms at the far end of the wing.
‘Oh dear,’ Alasdair muttered. ‘That doesn’t bode well.’
‘I think she is cross because Brigadier Ferguson has invited other guests, rather than just family, and she had wanted to keep this weekend less formal and easier for us.’
‘Me, you mean.’
‘Well, you have turned them down any number of times before.’
‘Alasdair, they are lonely. They have lost their sons.’ She swallowed quickly and blinked to hold back the emotion she always felt lurking behind her eyes when she thought of all the war dead. So many she had known. So many she had visited in hospital. Her two Ferguson cousins – so handsome, so vibrant, they seemed to lurk around every corner. What must it be like for their parents?
As if sensing Melissa’s change of mood, Alasdair, with his hand tucked firmly into the crook of her arm, leant over and said, ‘So tell me, what delightful creation are you wearing tonight?’
‘A silver sheath dress, rather slinky, if I say it myself.’
He dropped his hand, ran it over her hip, tracing the delightful curves of the sequins that flowed across the dress, and then he pinged her suspender.
‘Mmm, see what you mean, but shall I be fighting off cads all evening?’
Melissa’s grin was wasted but her voice carried it. ‘Oh no, you look far too dashing to have any chance of competition …’
‘Humph,’ was the reply but when she sneaked a look, he was smiling. She patted her cropped blonde curls – the colour that had named her. She liked the feel of air on the back of her neck, her earrings skimming her shoulders. After she made sure his hand was tucked through her elbow once more, they reached the head of the stairs.
She paused and muttered ‘stairs’ in a low voice. In response, Alasdair reached for the banister. Progressing down the stairs, one arm through Melissa’s and one on the rail, he descended. The smooth texture of the – no doubt well-polished – banister rail slid like silk under his fingers. The stairs were wide and carpeted (but thankfully not slippery) beneath the soft soles of his patent leather evening shoes. Every few steps he could feel the brass rods that held the carpet in place as his heels threatened to catch on them. Silently, he counted their number.
There was a young man standing at the bottom of the stairs. Melissa watched a play of emotions flit across his face. Was that admiration? They did rather make a handsome couple, she preened. Then his countenance changed to one of astonishment.
‘Major Charters? Alasdair? Good grief, man. I thought you were dead.’