75. Biting Metaphorical Heads

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Eventually I followed Ella out of the room and down the stairs. The torturers weren't far away. They were waiting to pounce on me on the landing.

"Finally! There you are!" Eve was in front of me like a flash. "What have you two been talking about in there? Never mind, never mind, I have more interesting questions right now, I can be nosy about Ella later. You have to tell us now! Tell us everything about how the heck you managed to get up on that platform!"

My mind was still on alcohol-induced headaches and back-garden romances. I couldn't find a single, plausible lie to put forward. Maybe I should just tell them the truth... but no! I couldn't. Out of my mad visit to a financier's office some weeks ago had arisen a real chance for me to forge myself a life of independence. I couldn't risk that by telling Eve. I loved her dearly, but she had the loosest mouth this side of the Thames.

Bloody hell! What can I do?

"Excuse me?"

We all turned to look. My aunt was standing a few steps below us, an expression on her face that could have been used to pickle cucumbers.

"Will your friends stay and join us for breakfast?" she asked me, letting her cool gaze sweep over the group of girls around me. "They didn't say they were coming beforehand, but I'm sure there will be enough boiled potatoes for three more people."

For the first time in my life, I would have liked to kiss my aunt.

"Oh no, Mrs Brank," Patsy said hurriedly. "Don't exert yourself on our account. I, um... had a very filling dinner yesterday. And we were just leaving, weren't we, girls?"

"Oh yes," Eve nodded quickly. "We were. Most certainly."

"What?" Flora, who was a bit slower on the uptake, asked. "But I thought we... ouch!" She winced, as Patsy stepped on her foot. "Yes, of course we were. Just leaving, right now."

"Come along, girls." Like a general gathering her troops, Patsy waved the other two to her flanks, just in case any boiled potatoes or disgusting bowls of gruel would suddenly launch an attack. "We've got places to be. And as for you—" At the bottom of the stairs, she turned a final time and gave me a significant look. "We'll have a talk with you later."

Oh dear. It didn't seem as though I was off the hook. But at least I would have time to think up a convincing cover-story. With relief, and with thankfulness for the fact that I and the girls were fast friends again, I watched Patsy and the others depart.

"Well?" my aunt snapped. "What are you standing around gawking like that? Come down to breakfast, or do you expect the rest of us to wait for you?"

"No, Aunt, I do not expect that."

"Then come down! The potatoes are already getting cold!"

If they had been served with Leadfield's usual speed and alacrity, they had probably been cold long before they reached the table. Yet I didn't say anything, simply followed my aunt down and to the breakfast table.

Everybody was already seated, apart from Uncle Bufford, of course. The head of the table, where he was supposed to sit, remained conspicuously empty, as always. My aunt could have sat there, but she preferred not to, as a demonstration that my uncle was grossly far behind in the performance of his social duties. Sometimes I wondered whether before we had come to his house, he had already had the habit of dining up in his study, or if that habit had developed to avoid an overdose of female company.

"Sit," my aunt told me, as if I were a misbehaving puppy – which, when I came to think about it, probably was exactly how she thought of me. I took my place at the table directly opposite Ella. She didn't meet my eyes.

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