maâam. They just said to check your timing.â
âWeâll have a cup of tea and go. Half an hour?â
âIâll tell them.â
âPerhaps youâd better look out a different route home.â
âIâm doing that. Not to worry, maâam.â
Louise put the handset down and turned, smiling.
âSorry about that,â she said. âIt wasnât anything.â
Still, it was more than a minute before Davy could suck satisfactorily again. This sort of thing happened about once a week, Louise thought, but Security didnât usually tell you about it unless you were alone and unwatched.
âLet me get the tea ready, Beatrice,â said Mrs Walsh, rising. âYou will need to come and carry the tray. I will call you when it is ready.â
She left the room, using her stick to lean on more heavily than on Louiseâs last visit. Aunt Bea gazed after her till the door closed.
âIsnât she wonderful?â she whispered. âSuch a good head, and so sure of herself. She tells me I ought to assert myself more.â
âThe girl whoâs minding me while Joanâs having the twins goes to self-assertion classes.â
âClasses? With desks and blackboards?â
âI think they act little plays asserting at each other. She says it helps. Donât worry, Aunt Beaâeveryone likes you as you are. Why didnât Mrs Walsh want us to go on talking about her adventure?â
Aunt Beaâs doughy pallor was incapable of blushing, but everything else proclaimed her embarrassment.
âOh â¦ oh â¦ well, you see, my dear, youâre so young.â
âNot in front of the children?â
âItâs all right for us old things whoâve knocked about a bit â¦â
Aunt Bea was no fool. She knew she was talking nonsense. Sheâd seen videos of Louise at bedsides in the harrowing hospitals of refugee camps, babies born after accouchements as primitive as the one Mrs Walsh had been describing with such relish. It was a rotten fib, and she knew it, but Louise couldnât hound the poor old thing any further, so she let Davy finish his feed and then handed him over to Aunt Bea to be burped while she went into the kitchen to fetch the tray.
During tea Mrs Walsh talked very forthcomingly about her life in St Petersburg before the First World War. The family had lived close to the Catherine Embankment, and strong among her childhood memories was the daily walk, with perambulators and nursemaids, past the spot at which Tsar Alexander had been assassinated thirty years earlier. One of the nurses, she said, used to describe the attack, always in the same words, ritualised like a fairy-tale, the racing carriage, the explosion, the Tsar climbing down to inspect the damage, and then the second explosion and the screams, and the smoke clearing away to show the Tsar and his assassin lying almost side by side, bleeding their lives out into the snow. Louise took Davy from Aunt Bea and sat nodding and oohing while she ran her fingers up the elastic little back, easing the knots of wind in the tubing. Of course, she realised, Mrs Walsh was talking so freely in order not to have to answer questions about her later adventure. She couldnât know how close the Chester bomb had come to doing the same thing to Mother and Fatherâthat had been largely hushed up, and most of the trial had been in camera. All the same, it was pretty tactless. Deliberately? Probably not. With a personality as powerful as Mrs Walshâs, the most trivial phrase or gesture tended to seem deliberate.
It was cold when Louise came out into the open, and dark under the cloud-layer, though it was still well before dusk. She slid the nest-egg across onto the passenger-seat, expecting John to be ready at the other door to fasten the seat-belt round it, but he was standing well back from the car, one hand in his jacket pocket, glancing left and right along the