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She’d never wanted Gwen to die. She would have much preferred it if she’d simply stood aside. The trouble with Gwen dying was that there would have to be a period of mourning. Mischa would insist on it and after all the children ought to have an opportunity to grieve. She’d waited all this time; a few more months was neither here nor there.
And afterwards, she’d start to make her presence felt; perhaps inviting Mischa and the children round for dinner. Then they could start meeting on their own – the theatre, maybe, or an exhibition: places where they might run into one or other of their friends. Hers had suspected all along, of course. She hadn’t gone out of her way to keep it secret, hoping maybe that once Gwen discovered, she would feel obliged to act if only to protect her dignity.
There hadn’t been much dignity towards the end and Dee was sorry for it. She was not a cruel person and God knows she’d had to learn to compromise over the years. The funeral had been a grand affair. Dee wondered if it was appropriate for her to go but after all she’d known Gwen practically as long as he had. It was during Mischa’s third term at The Bartlett that he’d started bringing Gwen to parties. Dee had had him ear-marked since The Fresher’s Ball and was dismayed to find that someone else was in the running. He had never been what you would call a handsome man – his face was heavy and his head looked marginally too big for his body. It was that extraordinary shock of dark hair. Even when he cut it back, within a week it would be as unruly as before. She’d loved that in him – that extraordinary energy. He had a mission. Architecture was to Mischa what adrenalin was to a city trader. He got off on it. Even Dee, who shared his confidence, was shaken by his meteoric rise.
He’d changed his name from “Silberman” to “Silver” when he left The Bartlett and his Christian name to Max. Gwen found it hard to understand how you could cast aside a name your family had passed down to you for generations, although she would willingly have cast her own aside for his. She thought now that he had been thinking of the knighthood even then. It was a sensible decision; she could see that now. And who knows, maybe when he married Gwen that was a sensible decision, too.
She wasn’t sure if Mischa recognised her sacrifice. They had been lovers for so long by that time that they simply carried on as if his marriage was a minor inconvenience. If anybody were to feel short-changed, it would be Gwen. That was until the New Year’s Honours list came out and Mischa found that he was on it. He’d been married for eleven years by that time. Still, Dee had no doubt that somewhere down the line he would leave Gwen and marry her.
And in the meantime she had made a point of being Gwen’s friend, too. She’d put a brave face on her sorrow when they had their first child, recognising that it would be twenty years before she could lay claim to Mischa and then three years later when the second child was born, that she would have to add another three onto the twenty.
And so it went on. She could have married someone else, of course, and maybe if she’d known how long she had to wait, she would have done. But although Mischa might have married for convenience, she didn’t think that she could.
She had written to him once after the funeral – a formal little note. Aware that Mischa’s children might be reading it, she had said nothing that might have been misinterpreted. Weeks passed and there was no reply. She waited. Any news she garnered came through other people. Mischa, it appeared, was coping with his grief. He had his work, of course; he wouldn’t have let that go by the board.
Four months passed. Whilst a phone call following her letter would have been in order, now it would seem crass. And then miraculously, crazily, the thing she longed for, happened. Mischa wrote to her, apologising for the tardiness of his reply and asking her to lunch the next week. He had given her three dates to choose from. Dee was free on all of them. She picked the middle one so that it wouldn’t look as if her life without him was entirely empty. He suggested an Italian restaurant in Compton Street. They had been in the habit, when they met, of dining in a little bistro off the Fulham Road where they would not be seen by anybody. “La Veneziano” was a larger and more public space and Dee knew that because it wasn’t far from Mischa’s offices, he often entertained his clients there. So their association wouldn’t be a secret any longer. After all this time, her dogged patience had won out.
She spent the next week frantically preparing for their rendezvous. She tried on several outfits, searching for the one that showed her red hair – now a kind of “mole-brown” to advantage. She felt almost as if she were getting ready for an interview, not meeting with an old friend … lover, she corrected.
She did not want to arrive first at the restaurant and so she waited in a café opposite until she saw him striding down Old Compton Street, his black cane swishing like a pendulum. This was how blind men made sure that the path ahead of them was clear. In Mischa’s case it was a signal to pedestrians to get out of the way. He turned into the restaurant and after pausing to adjust her hair, Dee followed.
He was sitting at a table in the centre of the room. She’d have preferred to have her back against the wall, especially as there was an empty table in the corner, but she gave a bright smile. He got up and held his hand out, holding hers a second whilst he gazed into her eyes. “Dear girl,” he murmured, “I’m so pleased to see you. Tell me,” he looked earnestly at her, “how are you?”
“I’m fine,” Dee said, modestly. “But what about you? How have you been coping, Mischa?” She had never quite adapted to the change of name.
He shrugged: “It’s been a difficult six months, but we’ve been overwhelmed by people’s kindness. I had no idea my darling wife was so adored.”
“You both were.”
“It’s a tragedy that she was taken from us. And so soon.”
“It’s not us who determines these things, Mischa.”
The waiter brought the menu. Mischa glanced round, nodding to a woman on another table. He was clearly well-known in the restaurant.
“I’ll have the turbot,” Dee said.
Mischa gave the waiter back the menu. “Just the usual for me.”
“Of course, sir.”
He looked down the wine list and selected half a bottle of Viognier for her and a full bottle of a more expensive wine to go with his meal. They talked aimlessly until the first course had been superseded by the second and continued in the same vein until they were onto the dessert. “Perhaps you’d like a brandy with your coffee?” he said.
Dee accepted. She watched Mischa peel the wrapper back on his cigar. The waiter bent and lit it for him.
“It’s been lovely chatting to you, Dee. We’ve had a lot of catching up to do, but now there’s something that I have to talk to you about. As you know, Gwen and I were very happy but she’s gone and now I have to think about the future.”
“You have your life, too,” insisted Dee.
“I am aware that what I have in mind will not please everyone. But I’ve discussed it with the children and they’ve given me their blessing. I’ve decided to get married.”
It was an odd way to propose, she thought. She watched him rolling the cigar between his thumb and finger. “She’s a nice girl, Dee. You’ll like her.”
No, thought Dee, I am not hearing this.
“Of course she’s young. She has a certain recklessness that would be frowned upon in middle-age but has a certain charm in youth. You will come to the wedding, won’t you?” He leaned forward with the kind of smile that spoke to the recipient and no one else. “Who knows, perhaps the three of us…”
Dee draped the coat across her arm. Although she only had to cross the yard it might be raining later. She paused by the armchair, placed strategically so that it looked across the courtyard straight into their living-room. She liked this house. She’d had it built to her requirements. It was fortunate that there had been enough land on the site that Mischa purchased for his own house, to accommodate another one for her.
The light was on inside their kitchen and Dee saw Miranda taking something from the oven. Mischa came into the room. He had on one of those designer aprons. Like so much of what he stood for it was purely for effect. She doubted that he’d ever cooked a meal in all the time she’d known him. Fifty years now. She had marked the anniversary. He hadn’t. But then he did have a busy life what with the second batch of children and the squabbles with the first brood. There were times when she had felt quite sorry for him.
There was no doubt that Miranda was a more demanding wife than Gwen had been. She wanted life on her terms. Mischa might have thought that giving her three children in four years would slow her down and probably it would have done if Dee had not been there to help. She often came in of an afternoon and sat with Julian, the youngest, whilst Miranda went out. Although Mischa paid for all the children to be educated privately, he didn’t see why he should pay for childcare when he had a wife to do the job. He was a little mean on that score. So Miranda would have been completely stuck without Dee to stand in for her.
She didn’t ask Miranda where she went; it wasn’t any of her business, but Miranda often came back from these expeditions looking flushed, as if she’d been injected with some vital substance. She was dropped off in a taxi so it wasn’t as if she’d been running for a bus. Presumably she spent her time out shopping, though she often came back empty-handed.
Feeling sorry for her in the early days, Dee had once introduced Miranda to Rex Benton. They had all been at The Bartlett in the same year. Rex and Mischa never got along. They were both too competitive. But Dee enjoyed his company and it was soon apparent that Miranda did as well. She had perked up no end after their lunch together.
Mischa on the other hand was looking rather jaded these days. Dee had noticed that his hair was thinning at the temples and although the red veins underneath his eyes stood out, the rest of him looked rather grey. Like many gifted men, it seemed that Mischa had become a victim of his own success.
After the third child came along Miranda had invited Dee to be his godmother. She didn’t know how Mischa felt about it but she had accepted anyway. The two of them were certainly not friends but Dee felt that they had an understanding. She knew that Miranda knew and now Miranda knew that she knew and this knowledge formed a silent bond between them.
It was after all what Mischa had been hoping for presumably when he said that he hoped the three of them would get together. It might not have been exactly what he had in mind but he would come round in the end. And in the meantime there were evenings like this to look forward to – delicious food (Miranda was a good cook) fine wine (Mischa was a snob as far as wine went) and companionship. And when the evening ended she would cross the courtyard to her own house, knowing that unlike Miranda and her husband she was not obliged to get up in the morning if she didn’t want to.
One could never be entirely certain what the future held but in a sense it didn’t matter. Dee had made sure that whichever one of them survived, she was protected. It was most unlikely that Miranda would die first, of course, although as Mischa had observed the young were reckless; sometimes tragedies occurred. It wasn’t something you could guard against. In that event, well let’s say this time she was forearmed.
Mischa glanced towards the window at the sound of Dee’s feet on the cobbles. Dee paused for a moment. For an instant he seemed to be staring straight into her eyes but then he looked away. Still, this time Dee knew that he’d seen her.