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Strangers in Company

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Strangers in Company

  Strangers in Company

  Jane Aiken Hodge


  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  A Note on the Author

  Chapter One

  The girl was looking the other way, gloomily, almost sullenly across the crowded departure lounge. Satisfied, Marian French dug with quick stealth in her huge over-the-shoulder bag. Passport, tickets, traveller’s cheques—Ah, there it was, the small silver pillbox Mark had given her—dear God, nineteen years ago. Another quick sideways glance. The girl—must think of her as Stella—Stella Marten was still looking listlessly towards the departure indicator that showed obstinately blank so far as their flight was concerned.

  Marian’s hands trembled a little as she unscrewed the tiny egg-shaped container. Tranquillisers, Dr. Brown had said; entirely harmless. He had smiled that vast, not altogether reassuring smile of his.

  “Can’t have you getting delusions now, Mrs. Frenche. You’ve done so well.”

  “Thank you.” For a moment, they had looked silently back together over the eighteen years since Mark had left her, since the twins had been born. Done well? Poor fool, she had sometimes even thought so herself.

  It was difficult, but not impossible, to swallow the tiny pill without water. Replacing the box in her bag, she felt it coming over her again, the horrible, unidentifiable feeling—no, call it certainty—that someone was watching her. Delusions? Dr. Brown had talked of long strain, of sudden shock and of a handful of phobias, settling finally, with obvious relief, for agoraphobia, because she always had this feeling of being watched when she was out of doors. She was afraid of open spaces, he had told her kindly, had urged a holiday, a change.…

  Open spaces. Could the departure lounge of Gatwick Airport, grossly overcrowded at ten o’clock on a Saturday night, be so described? Would Dr. Brown, if he had been here, have told her comfortably that she was suffering from claustrophobia, too? Because here it was, stronger than ever, the certainty that somewhere, in this restless crowd of people, eyes were fixed on her, and in no friendly spirit. Absurd? Of course it was absurd. That was what had sent her to the doctor rather than to the police, and he had given her the explanation that, in her heart, she had expected. It was natural enough, after all, that the double shock, emotional and financial, should have left its mark. But she had managed to keep going, somehow, until the twins had actually left her to join their father in America. That was like her, Dr. Brown had said. He used praise she thought wryly, where other doctors use tonics.

  It had been when she got back from his office that she had found the card on the doormat. “Need a Job?” it had read. “Or a Guardian Angel? We provide both.” The “we” called themselves “Jobs Unlimited” and operated from a highly respectable Sloane Square address. On an impulse, she had gone straight to the telephone and called their number. And—here she was, three weeks later—a magnificently overpaid guardian angel. And grossly neglecting her charge, she reminded herself, forcing a smile as she leaned forward.

  “How about a cup of coffee? Or a Coke perhaps?” She had met Stella Marten only once, briefly, at the office of Jobs Unlimited and under the benevolent eye of Miss Oakland, the friendly, grey-haired dragon who presided there.

  “I’d rather have a whisky.” The girl shook unkempt, perhaps dirty black curls out of her eyes. Her tone was a challenge.

  “Of course. Stupid of me.” Marian’s brain was whirling like a computer, putting together the various bits of information she had been given about her charge. She was, after all, nearly twenty-one, three years older than the twins. And the one thing, at least, that Miss Oakland had not mentioned was a problem over alcohol. There had been practically everything else: trouble with her adoptive parents; an unlucky affair; and, finally, a state of “complete nervous exhaustion” which their prospective bus tour in Greece was supposed to cure. It had seemed, at the time, an odd enough prescription, and so had the rider that Stella was to be left alone as little as possible. But then, talk about the blind leading the blind.… “I must say,” Marian went on almost immediately, “it’s not a bad idea.” She picked up her heavy bag.

  “I’ll get it.” Stella was on her feet already. “Ice? Soda?”

  “Straight, thanks. But, let me….” Marian produced her purse.

  “Nonsense. I’m loaded. They were so glad to be rid of me—even for two weeks—that they kept giving me more money.” She turned away towards the crowded bar with the angry grace Marian had noticed in all her movements. “They,” of course, were Stella’s adoptive parents, the Martens, to whom she never referred by name. Miss Oakland had not explained what the trouble was between them. “Better not,” she had said. “The less you know, I think, the easier you will find it.”

  Marian devoutly hoped she was right. But at least it was restful to find herself being waited on like this. Had she let the twins take her services too much for granted? But she was not to think about the twins. It had been Dr. Brown’s last bit of advice, when he gave his blessing to this extraordinary project, and she recognised it as just as sound as his other, earlier warning that she should say nothing at Jobs Unlimited about her own nervous state. “No one’s going to employ you if they think you’re suffering from delusions. And work’s the best cure for them, take my word for it.”

  She had taken his advice, and he had been delighted with the result. “A bus tour of Greece! It’s what I’d have liked to prescribe for you.” They both knew how impossible such a prescription would have been. If Mark’s cheques had really stopped coming, she must work or starve.

  National Assistance.… Her mouth was suddenly dry. It had begun again. She could feel the imagined eyes upon her, inimical, probing as an X ray, and as damaging. “Think of something else.” All of Dr. Brown’s advice was good, if one could only follow it She made herself concentrate on the crowd around the bar and saw that Stella had made good progress through it. And not with her elbows either, as one might have expected from that sullen face. Men seemed simply to give way before the small, determined figure. She was at the bar now, and instantly being attended to by one of the men who would have taken five minutes to notice Marian. It had always infuriated the twins when she let herself be pushed out of her place in one of life’s inevitable queues.

  Don’t think about the twins. Stella was coming back now, a glass in each hand, her patchwork suede bag hanging precariously from one elbow. “I got you a double.” Her tone was brusque as ever. “You look as though you could do with it” Her own glass was large, and pale, and fizzy. “I like it with ginger ale.” She sat down with a cat’s precise grace, then picked up her glass. “Here’s to us,” she said. “And Mercury Tours.”

  “Yes.” The whisky burned and comforted. Life was ordinary again. “I’ve been looking for labels, but I haven’t seen any.”

  “No.” Stella glanced down at the scarlet labels on their own hand luggage. “But it’s early yet”

  “Yes.” They had met, by arrangement, quite absurdly early, and it had taken some blandishment on both their parts to talk their way through into the departure lounge.

  “It’s like being in limbo,” said Stella surprisingly, as an inhuman voice announced Flight Number Something for Majorca, now boarding at Gate Eleven.

  “Departures arranged for hell or heaven,” said Marian.

Heaven, of course, from Gate Eleven.” Suddenly, amazingly, the tension that had stretched between them slackened; they caught each other’s eyes and smiled. And, smiling, Stella was beautiful. “Mercury Classical Tours,” she said. “Aren’t we just going to be educated?”

  “I’d never heard of them,” Marian admitted. Nor had she had time to investigate them. “I suppose”—she looked doubtfully round for other red labels—“they’re all right.”

  “Oh, I think so. ‘They’ always pick the best—or at least the most expensive. And it’s the cheapest ones that don’t get off the ground.”

  “Yes.” The departure lounge was even more crowded now. Children ran about and screamed. Exhausted parents sat on the floor, backs to the wall, and ignored them. A group of returning Germans, with enormous rucksacks, shouldered their way past. One of them tripped, swore unintelligibly and glanced down with quick suspicion at Stella. But she was looking, suddenly, quite different, about sixteen, the drink in her glass obviously nonalcoholic.

  “Stella—” Marian began, but Stella was on her feet.

  “There are some of ours,” she said. “Look!” She made a face. “Just what I thought. Escaped schoolmistresses, every one of them.” She sat down as abruptly as she had risen. “Just exactly the people I least want to see. I told them.…”

  There had been trouble at school, too. “Well, let’s stay here,” said Marian pacifically. “No need to get involved till the last minute.”

  “No need to get involved at all.”

  “Not if you don’t want to.” Miss Oakland had warned her about this, but just the same Marian suppressed a sigh as she looked at the eager, cheerful group of young women, conspicuously red-labelled, who seemed so busy talking that they had not even bothered to try and find seats in the crowded lounge. Most of them looked hardly older than Stella herself. It seemed a pity, thought Marian, but there it was. “She probably won’t want to talk to anyone,” Miss Oaklands had warned her. “You’ll need to keep with her all the time. I think you’ll find you earn the high pay.”

  But at least they were to have single rooms, procured, no doubt at enormous expense, by the Martens. Stella, it appeared, had flatly refused to share. And that was all right with Marian. “Just keep her cheerful all day,” Miss Oakland had said. “No need to worry at night. The one thing she hasn’t done is attempt suicide.”

  Looking at her charge now, Marian could believe that. It might be a sulky face, but it was far from being a weak one. The dark eyes under heavily marked brows, the firm set of the lips in repose, even the high, strongly shadowed cheekbones all suggested a basic strength. Impossible not to wonder about the real parents, who had let their child go for adoption at a few days old. But, “Don’t,” Miss Oakland had warned. “It’s part of the problem, naturally, but no one talks about it”

  Perhaps better if they did? But that was none of Marian’s business. She had taken on this job, at an astronomical wage, and it was the least she could do to follow instructions. And two weeks was such a short time. Time.… She looked at her watch.

  “Yes, it’s overdue.” Stella had noticed the gesture. Doubtless she, too, had been busy summing up her companion for the next two weeks. “That’s the worst of charter flights.” And then, “Good lord!” Marian had already noticed a delightful and surprising mildness about her language. Impossible not to remember the twins, with their obvious need to shock. Well, perhaps it was easier for adoptive parents.…

  Excuses again. And Stella was saying something. “Can’t be the courier, surely?”

  Following the direction of the firmly pointed finger, Marian saw at once what Stella meant It was a very young man indeed who was wearing the red label of Mercury Tours in his buttonhole. “He hardly looks out of the egg,” said Stella scornfully, and then, with her rather harsh little laugh, “Oh, look, the schoolmarms have spotted him!”

  Marian had just time to decide that the extremely blond young man was probably, in fact, rather older than his pink complexion made him look, when he was surrounded by the eager crowd of young women. Surprisingly, Stella was on her feet again. “I might as well go and see what he’s got to say.”

  “But if you don’t want to get involved?” Marian had a strong feeling that she ought to go herself, but the whisky, or the tranquilliser, or both, had loosened her defences against the accumulated exhaustion of the last few weeks. She was not sure she was capable of getting up. The double had been a mistake, she thought muzzily, but a well-meant one.

  And, “Don’t worry, I shan’t.” Stella hitched the bright patchwork bag over her shoulder. “Back in a moment.”

  Left blessedly alone, Marian allowed herself the luxury of closing her eyes for a moment. Instantly, she was lost in a whirling dizziness, a mad kaleidoscope of the last weeks. The letter from Mark.… No cheque.… The twins.… Don’t think about the twins. Miss Oakland: “You’ll find you earn the high pay.”

  But was she? With an immense effort, she opened her eyes, to find Stella bending over her. “You look flaked out, you poor thing.” A note of real sympathy in her voice. “And it’s bad news, of course. There’s an hour’s delay. ‘Operational difficulties.’ We’ll be lucky if it’s only that. Here.” She bent, with her swift efficiency of movement, and pushed her small overnight bag towards Marian. “Put your feet on that. Try and get some sleep. You’re all in.”

  “Yes. I’m sorry.” Talk about the blind leading the blind. She made a great effort. “What’s the courier like?”

  “Useless,” said Stella Marten succinctly. Her laugh was harsher than usual, and somewhere, deep down, Marian registered a tiny half-conscious alarm signal. “It’s his first tour,” Stella went on. “The regular man hasn’t turned up. I never did find out why. This one took over at an hour’s notice. The schoolmarms are ‘ever so sorry for him’.” She picked her scarlet cotton raincoat off the back of her chair and draped it carefully over Marian’s legs. “Try and get some sleep, Mrs. Frenche. You’re going to need it. God knows when we’ll get to Athens. Don’t worry. I’ll wake you when the flight’s finally called. If it ever is.”

  Once again, her tone sent that unexpected alarm tingling way down in Marian’s consciousness. But she was too tired to pay attention. “I wish you’d call me Marian,” she said, and slept.

  Someone was shaking her. Viola? Sebastian? No. Reality flooded back as she sat up and ran shaky fingers through her short, brindled hair.

  “Lord, you were dead to the world.” Stella was smiling down at her. “I hate to wake you, but our flight’s actually been called. They’re all milling through Gate Twelve and I reckon by the time you’re ready to move, the worst will be over. But how do you feel?”

  “Much better, thanks.” It was true. The short, deep sleep had done her more good than nights of endless half-sleep, half-wakeful tossing. “But I must look like hell.”

  “You don’t, you know. Did anyone ever tell you you look like Lady Olivier?” She laughed. “Joan Plowright, I mean, not Vivien Leigh. I don’t quite see you as Scarlet O’Hara.” She yawned. “Come on, you look fine, and anyway, who’s going to notice at this godawful hour of the night? We’re nearly two hours late now. You’ve been out cold the whole time.”

  Marian laughed as she picked up her small zip-topped case. “A fine chaperone I make. Just as well Miss Oakland’s not here to see. Thanks for watching over me.”

  “No trouble.” An odd expression in that so far unreadable face? Hard to tell.… And no time to be thinking about it, while they gathered together their possessions. As it was, they were the last through Gate Twelve and walked along the endless echoing Gatwick corridor well behind the rest of the party.

  “They’ve been fraternising like mad.” Stella cast a darkling look forward. “Of course there are lots of other tours using this plane, but our labels are so ghastly unmistakable.”

  Marian yawned uncontrollably. “What time is it?”

  “Two in the morning. We’ll just about get to Athens for breakfast. How I
hate night flights.” The sentences came out jerkily, and Marian remembered that curious, unidentifiable feeling of something wrong that she had had before she fell asleep. Oh, well, night was the time for imagining things.

  The last to board the plane, they were greeted with unceremonious briskness by an exhausted-looking stewardess.

  “Back there. The two empty seats.” She turned away to put a coat in the luggage rack and remove a heavy-looking case. “On the floor, please.”

  “Sounds like the end of a long, horrible day.” Stella, leading the way, had found the two vacant seats in one of the inevitable rows of three. The one by the window was already occupied by the blond young courier, who was on his feet at once, offering to change seats. But, “No, thanks.” Stella sat down firmly in the middle seat of the row. “There’s nothing to see anyway,” she pointed out, rising again to throw her red raincoat and Marian’s brown one expertly up into the rack, while he made ineffective attempts at helping her, hamstrung by the fact that he was cramped under the overhang.

  “There.” She turned her back on him to tuck her small bag and Marian’s under the seats in front. “Something to put our feet on. I bet no one’s ever asked a woman to design a plane. Have you ever flown the Atlantic?”

  “No.” The knife turned in the wound. “I saw my children off, the other day. Of course, I didn’t get near the plane.”

  “Just as bad as this one.” To Marian’s relief, Stella showed not the slightest interest in the fact of her children. “Nowhere to put your feet, and the minute you get almost settled, the seat in front falls back on you with a crash.” She fastened her seat belt with a quick, irritable movement of the hands, then turned the other way as the courier asked her the same question for the third time.

  “Did you get through in the end?” he had been asking.

  “Through? Oh—on the telephone you mean. No, my friend must have been out.” She turned from him dismissively. “I thought I might as well say good-bye,” she explained to Marian.

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