'Oh, Evie - will you really?'
The children are asleep. That's one problem out of the way. She unbuttoned her coat. 'Does Henry know?'
'Yes, he's nearly dressed.’
'What did he say?'
'He said, give them a drink.’
‘Then what are we waiting for?' asked Evie.
They found a tray, some glasses, the bottle of Tio pepe. Evie manhandled ice out of the icetray. Alison found nuts.
'The dining room,’ said Alison. 'I'd meant to light the fire. It's icy.’
“I’ll get the little paraffin stove going. It smells a bit but it'll warm the room quicker than anything else. And I'll draw the curtains and switch on the hot plate.’ She opened the kitchen door. 'Quick, now, in you go.’
Alison carried the tray across the hall, fixed a smile on her face, opened the door and made her entrance. The Fairhursts were sitting by the fire, looking relaxed and cheerful, but Mr Fairhurst got to his feet and came to help Alison, pulling forward a low table and taking the tray from her hands.
'We were just wishing,’ said Mrs Fairhurst, 'that our daughter would follow your example and move out into the country. They've a dear little flat in the Fulham Road, but she's having her second baby in the summer, and I'm afraid it's going to be very cramped.’
'It's quite a step to take . . . ' Alison picked up the sherry bottle, but Mr Fairhurst said, 'Allow me,’ and took it from her and poured the drinks himself, handing a glass to his wife. ' . . . But Henry . . . '
As she said his name, she heard his footsteps on the stair, the door opened, and there he was. She had expected him to burst into the room, out of breath, thoroughly fussed, and with some button or cuff-link missing. But his appearance was neat and immaculate - as though he had spent at least half an hour in getting changed instead of the inside of two minutes. Despite the nightmare of what was happening, Alison found time to be filled with admiration for her husband. He never ceased to surprise her, and his composure was astonishing. She began to feel, herself, a little calmer. It was, after all, Henry's future, his career, that was at stake. If he could take this evening in his stride, then surely Alison could do the same. Perhaps, together, they could carry it off.
Henry was charming. He apologised for his late appearance, made sure that his guests were comfortable, poured his own glass of sherry, and settled himself, quite at ease, in the middle of the sofa. He and the Fairhursts began to talk about Birmingham. Alison laid down her glass, murmured something about seeing to dinner, and slipped out of the room.
Across the hall, she could hear Evie struggling with the old paraffin heater. She went into the kitchen and tied on an apron. There was the salad. And what else? No time to unfreeze the prawns, deal with the fillet of beef, or make Mother's lemon soufflé. But there was the deep freeze, filled as usual with the sort of food her children would eat, and not much else. Fish fingers, frozen chips, ice cream. She opened its lid and peered inside. Saw a couple of rock-hard chickens, three loaves of sliced bread, two iced lollies on sticks.
Oh, God, please let me find something, please let there be something I can give the Fairhursts to eat.
She thought of all the panic-stricken prayers which in the course of her life she had sent winging upwards. Long ago, she had decided that somewhere, up in the wild blue yonder, there simply had to be a computer, otherwise how could God keep track of the millions of billions of requests for aid and assistance that had been coming at Him through all eternity?
Please let there be something for dinner.
Tring, tring, went the computer, and there was the answer. A plastic carton of Chile con Carne, which Alison had made and stored a couple of months ago. That wouldn't take more than fifteen minutes to unfreeze, stirred in a pot over the hot plate, and with it they could have boiled rice and the salad.
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