George was confused for a second, peered at her as he quickly buttoned his jacket, and said, 'Cecil missed his train,' rather sharply.
'Well, clearly,' said Daphne, who chose a certain dryness of tone against the constant queasy likelihood of being teased.
'And then of course I had to see Middlesex,' said Cecil, coming forward and shaking her hand. 'We seem to have tramped over much of the county.'
'He brought you the country way,' said Daphne. 'There's the country way, and the suburban way, which doesn't create such a fine impression. You just go straight up Stanmore Hill.'
George wheezed with embarrassment, and also a kind of relief. 'There, Cess, you've met my sister.'
Cecil's hand, hot and hard, was still gripping hers, in a frank, convivial way. It was a large hand, and somehow unfeeling; a hand more used to gripping oars and ropes than the slender fingers of sixteen-year-old girls. She took in his smell, of sweat and grass, the sourness of his breath. When she started to pull her fingers out, he squeezed again, for a second or two, before releasing her. She didn't like the sensation, but in the minute that followed she found that her hand held the memory of his hand, and half-wanted to reach out through the shadows and touch it again.
'I was reading poetry,' she said, 'but I'm afraid it grew too dark to see.'
'Ah!' said Cecil, with his quick high laugh, that was almost a snigger; but she sensed he was looking at her kindly. In the late dusk they had to peer closely to be sure of each other's expressions; it made them seem particularly interested in each other. 'Which poet?'
She had Tennyson's poems, and also the Granta, with three of Cecil's own poems in it, 'Corley', 'Dawn at Corley' and 'Corley: Dusk'. She said, 'Oh, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.'
Cecil nodded slowly and seemed amused by searching for the kind and lively thing to say. 'Do you find he still holds up?' he said.
'Oh yes,' said Daphne firmly, and then wondered if she'd understood the question. She glanced between the lines of trees, but with a sense of other shadowy perspectives, the kind of Cambridge talk that George often treated them to, where things were insisted on that couldn't possibly be meant. It was a refinement of teasing, where you were never told why your answer was wrong. 'We all love Tennyson here,' she said, 'at "Two Acres".'
Now Cecil's eyes seemed very playful, under the broad peak of his cap. 'Then I can see we shall get on,' he said. 'Let's all read out our favourite poems - if you like to read aloud.' 'Oh yes!' said Daphne, excited already, though she'd never heard Hubert read out anything except a letter in The Times that he agreed with. 'Which is your favourite?' she said, with a moment's worry that she wouldn't have heard of it.
Cecil smiled at them both, savouring his power of choice, and said, 'Well, you'll find out when I read it to you.'
'I hope it's not "The Lady of Shalott",' said Daphne.
'Oh, I like "The Lady of Shalott".'
'I mean, that's my favourite,' said Daphne.
George said, 'Well, come up and meet Mother,' spreading his arms to shepherd them.
'And Mrs Kalbeck's here too,' said Daphne, 'by the way.'
'Then we'll try and get rid of her,' said George.
'Well, you can try...' said Daphne.
'I'm already feeling sorry for Mrs Kalbeck,' said Cecil, 'whoever she may be.'
'She's a big black beetle,' said George, 'who took Mother to Germany last year, and hasn't let go of her since.'
'She's a German widow,' said Daphne, with a note of sad realism and a pitying shake of the head. She found Cecil had spread his arms too and, hardly thinking, she did the same; for a moment they seemed united in a lightly rebellious pact.
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.
Blood at the Root
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