Excerpt of The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
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She'd been lying in the hammock reading poetry for over an
hour. It wasn't easy: she was thinking all the while about
George coming back with Cecil, and she kept sliding down, in
small half-willing surrenders, till she was in a heap, with the
book held tiringly above her face. Now the light was going,
and the words began to hide among themselves on the page.
She wanted to get a look at Cecil, to drink him in for a minute
before he saw her, and was introduced, and asked her what she
was reading. But he must have missed his train, or at least his
connection: she saw him pacing the long platform at Harrow
and Wealdstone, and rather regretting he'd come. Five minutes
later, as the sunset sky turned pink above the rockery, it began
to seem possible that something worse had happened. With
sudden grave excitement she pictured the arrival of a telegram,
and the news being passed round; imagined weeping pretty
wildly; then saw herself describing the occasion to someone,
many years later, though still without quite deciding what the
news had been.
In the sitting-room the lamps were being lit, and through
the open window she could hear her mother talking to Mrs
Kalbeck, who had come to tea, and who tended to stay, having
no one to get back for. The glow across the path made the
garden suddenly lonelier. Daphne slipped out of the hammock,
put on her shoes, and forgot about her books. She started
towards the house, but something in the time of day held her,
with its hint of a mystery she had so far overlooked: it drew
her down the lawn, past the rockery, where the pond that
reflected the trees in silhouette had grown as deep as the white
sky. It was the long still moment when the hedges and borders
turned dusky and vague, but anything she looked at closely, a
rose, a begonia, a glossy laurel leaf, seemed to give itself back
to the day with a secret throb of colour.
She heard a faint familiar sound, the knock of the broken
gate against the post at the bottom of the garden; and then an
unfamiliar voice, with an edge to it, and then George's laugh.
He must have brought Cecil the other way, through the Priory
and the woods. Daphne ran up the narrow half-hidden steps in
the rockery and from the top she could just make them out
in the spinney below. She couldn't really hear what they were
saying, but she was disconcerted by Cecil's voice; it seemed so
quickly and decisively to take control of their garden and their
house and the whole of the coming weekend. It was an
excitable voice that seemed to say it didn't care who heard it,
but in its tone there was also something mocking and superior.
She looked back at the house, the dark mass of the roof and
the chimney-stacks against the sky, the lamp-lit windows under
low eaves, and thought about Monday, and the life they would
pick up again very readily after Cecil had gone.
Under the trees the dusk was deeper, and their little wood
seemed interestingly larger. The boys were dawdling, for all
Cecil's note of impatience. Their pale clothes, the rim of
George's boater, caught the failing light as they moved slowly
between the birch-trunks, but their faces were hard to make
out. George had stopped and was poking at something with
his foot, Cecil, taller, standing close beside him, as if to share
his view of it. She went cautiously towards them, and it took
her a moment to realize that they were quite unaware of her;
she stood still, smiling awkwardly, let out an anxious gasp, and
then, mystified and excited, began to explore her position. She
knew that Cecil was a guest and too grown-up to play a trick
on, though George was surely in her power. But having the
power, she couldn't think what to do with it. Now Cecil had
his hand on George's shoulder, as if consoling him, though he
was laughing too, more quietly than before; the curves of their
two hats nudged and overlapped. She thought there was something
nice in Cecil's laugh, after all, a little whinny of good
fun, even if, as so often, she was not included in the joke.
Then Cecil raised his head and saw her and said, 'Oh, hello!'
as if they'd already met several times and enjoyed it.
Excerpted from The Stranger's Child
by Alan Hollinghurst. Copyright © 2011 by Alan Hollinghurst.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.