Eventually, dinner was served, and Edmund shut up about our childhood visits to Aunt Augusta in Whitby and the dead Roman soldier and sat down at the dining table. On a good night, the ancient oblong would seat forty-two, but Beak House hadn’t seen one of those gay soirees since the mid-thirties. Tonight, winter, 1969, there sat the two of us. Two brothers who hadn’t sat opposite each other for a quarter of a century, in a cavernous room of dust and discolored cutlery, lit by four candles and dim memories.
Creases wheeled the service trolley around the end of the table. Heaven only knew how old the man was. The Scotsman had been elderly when Edmund and I had been boys. We were both now 59, dangling in the abyss of decrepitude, and Creases was even crustier. Dressed in butler-black, he moved like a figure from antiquity, resurrected from his grave to slowly buttle the food cart. He placed a bowl of soup in front of me, then my brother, and then wheeled the trolley out of the room.
“What happened to Polly?” Edmund asked, spoon in one hand, wine glass in the other.
“Polly. The housemaid.”
I could never remember names, least of all those of the staff. I stared blankly at my brother.
He elaborated. “She had red hair, like it was on fire, and spoke with a slight lisp.”
“Oh, that Polly. She was an attractive slip of a thing, if I remember rightly.”
“She had unforgettable eyes,” Edmund remarked. “A brilliant shade of blue.”
“She disappeared, didn’t she?”
He nodded. “What happened to her?”
“You’re a Whitehall man, you tell me.”
He said nothing. He filled his mouth with more wine. Pinot noir and tomato soup. Champion!
Edmund, my fraternal twin, had held a desk job at Whitehall since before the war, the details of which had never been made clear to me. I suspected he was MI6, or 7, or 8, or whatever number they assigned to boring gentlemen from the landed classes. He wore a brown suit jacket, clean white shirt, and a tangerine tie. He was divorced, still sported a full head of blond hair, and remained damnably fit of body.
I had never married, had gone bald, and was not in the best of training. I had spent my war years in the employ of the Army Film and Photographic Unit, which had led to my subsequent career as a film producer with Ealing Studios. I wore black. Turtleneck.
“Polly’s disappearance was years ago,” I said.
Edmund swallowed. “The summer of 1935.”
“Why are you thinking of her, of all people?”
“It’s an unsolved mystery.”
“This house is full of them.”
I swirled some wine about in my mouth, and a long-forgotten wager came back to my mind. I swallowed. “The bet.”
Edmund gazed across the table with sad eyes. “We were awful, Douglas, weren’t we?”
“We were twenty years old, up from Cambridge for the holidays, and randy as roosters. Anyway, as I recall, neither of us succeeded in that adventure.”
He shook his head.
My left eyebrow adopted an elevated stance. “You bedded her?”
“We had ten pounds on that. You never mentioned it.”
“It became complicated.”
Creases returned and stood to attention in the corner.
I bid him approach.
“Have you finished that task?”
“You’ve carried them all down into the cellar?”
“And the other things?”
“Good. You can take the soup.”
I hadn’t touched mine and Edmund had given up. Creases teetered about the table and collected the soup bowls, then tottered out of the room and back into the darkness.
“We really must have the electricity reinstated,” I remarked.
“Who is preparing dinner?” Edmund inquired. “Don’t tell me Cookie is still alive.”
I shook my head. “I believe she died years ago. Creases got a woman in from the village to come and cook.”
“How? There’s no electricity.”