Late on the third afternoon, as Evie sipped iced water and tried to concentrate on the collection of poetry she was reading, she sensed a presence in the garden. She put down her book and looked up. A sleek black dog with a white flash on his head ran across the sun-dappled lawn and came over to sniff her. Evie reached a hand out to pat him. ‘Well, hello there, fellow, what’s your name?’ As her hand moved to stroke the dog’s head, he curled back his lips, bared his teeth and growled at her.
Evie looked up to see a man standing hands on hips, studying her. The late afternoon sun was behind him and the light too strong for her to see more than his shadowed outline but she knew at once it was Douglas Barrington. The dog trotted over to him obediently and lay down at his feet.
‘He doesn’t like strangers. He’s a working dog. Better keep your distance until he gets used to you.’ His voice was deep and sonorous.
Blinking, Evie jumped to her feet and moved towards him. As she got closer, she realised he was frowning, looking at her as if trying to work something out. The years had greyed his wavy brown hair at the temples, his skin was a dark mahogany with spidery white lines radiating from his eyes, between his brows and round his mouth and nose, where wrinkles had blocked the reach of the sun. He was wearing the white man’s uniform – knee-length khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. Despite the signs of age, he was still a handsome man, and she felt a ripple running deep inside her.
‘You’re Evelyn?’ He gave his head a little sideways shake as if he’d just woken up. ‘You seem different from how I remembered you.’ He was still looking her up and down.
Stomach churning, throat dry, Evie moved towards him. She’d hoped for a different kind of welcome. They were, after all, distant cousins. Why not an embrace? A warm and friendly hug, even a peck on the cheek. Instead, Barrington proffered his hand, shook hers briefly, and jerked his head in the direction of the open French window. ‘Benny’s mixing some sharpeners.’ He turned and walked back inside the house, his dog at his heels. Evie followed them inside, her heart sinking.
‘I’m having a stengah, but I know most ladies prefer pahits.’
She looked at him blankly.
‘Stengah is whisky and soda and pahit is gin and bitters – pink gin.’
She didn’t really want a drink at all, but told herself it would steady her nerves. ‘Thank you. Gin please.’
Douglas sprawled in one of the heavy teak chairs and polished off his whisky and soda in a few gulps, as if it were water. He held out the empty glass for Benny to replenish. Evie took a small sip of her gin, grateful for the sharpness of the alcohol opening her parched throat.
‘Did you have urgent business in Singapore?’ she asked.
‘What do you mean?’ He took another gulp of his drink, avoiding her gaze.
‘I… er…I had thought…that you’d be here in George Town when I arrived.’ The sound of her own voice was thin, barely a whisper. Get a grip of yourself, Evie.
‘I’ve a business to run. It’s a full-time job.’ He pulled a pipe from the pocket of his shorts, tamped the tobacco down and lit it. Puffing on it, he stroked the dog which lay stretched out at his feet.
The tension in the room was palpable. The ceiling fan whirred slowly above them, the clock ticked loudly and the dog’s breathing was soft but audible. Evie could feel her heart hammering inside her chest. What was going on? She was certain he’d been surprised when he’d seen her. Shocked even.
Then it hit her. He’d thought she was someone else. That afternoon of his wedding he’d danced with several of the young women present. Had he mixed her up with a different girl? Someone more beautiful? Someone more interesting?
Douglas continued to puff on his pipe and drink his scotch, now at a more respectable pace. He was behaving as if she were invisible. She wished she was – she’d have liked to float away and disappear for ever. The utter humiliation of it.
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