A week of strange days later and McDonald’s Suburban rolls up the long gravel drive to Richard Lytton’s house. Cover stories have been practiced and information swapped. Struan has successfully avoided too much information but he is aware that nothing has happened between the two younger members of the party. The director had grudgingly allowed the trip as a controlled experiment and all procedures had been stopped to allow them time to prepare. Strangely, this in itself had been informative, and everyone was fascinated by the speed with which his skin had lost any sign of needle and blade. Dave had also demonstrated a remarkable alacrity in learning how to cope with alcohol, the one poison that he had not been previously exposed to. His adaptive physiology quickly seemed to make ‘drunk’ a choice rather than the inevitable effect much to the impressed disbelief of the pair of hard drinking McDonalds.
At the wheel of the car Struan has tried to time their arrival politely late in hopes that other house guests would have already started on Lytton’s extensive wine cellar and that a merry haze will help cover up any mistakes they might make. In the last quiet moment before leaving the car it seems right to hold his daughter’s hand and wish her well. Of all of them Struan has spent the week worrying that hers will be the hardest part to play.
Warned by the gatehouse the doctor’s old friend and Alyssa’s god-father, Richard Lytton, waits impatiently for the car to come to a stop. There is little peace once the car doors are open and he begins his effusive greetings to the surprise guests of the weekend – his favourite girl (trying to sound aggrieved but smiling too much, “we need to discuss keeping secrets young lady”), her father (“You old dog, there’s me worrying you might be lonely and all the time you had this beauty hidden away”), Helena (“aptly named indeed, surely your face could launch a thousand ships”) and, finally, the slim man holding Alyssa’s hand (“Well, hello again tall, dark and heterosexual”).
As their bags disappear into the house and anonymous security spirits the car away, Lytton ushers them through to the salon and genteel introductions all round. Some of the faces belonged to people Alyssa recalled from her childhood and more recent visits to Uncle Dickie, some were new faces on older friends, a few were very recent friends. Lytton’s circle would have only the most interesting people. Being invited to one of his parties was one thing, staying the whole weekend another level again. More people would arrive the following day. The McDonalds were definitely ‘in’ as Dickie wanted the opportunity for some quality catch up time to see what he could make of the surprising and unadvertised change in her interests.
“He does know, doesn’t he?” A stage whisper from one of Lytton’s older relatives – a sweet lady who never quite got it right but who was always entertaining – and a firm grip on her elbow sees the younger McDonald cut from the pack.
“That you are a woman in comfortable shoes.” Alyssa barely lets her face slip. While poor old Nan Dyce struggles to find a diplomatic euphemism the younger woman can’t help but look to her supposed boyfriend. Rather than stating the obvious her interrogator tries again. “Your young man, he knows that you bat for the other team. You have told him.”
“Nan, don’t worry. Of course he knows. It was an old girlfriend of mine who introduced us. Actually … actually … don’t tell but …” This approach was guaranteed to make sure everyone would know in the next half hour, “she thought she’d try and make me jealous by making out with him as a way of getting me interested again. Bold as brass the minx even suggested a three way. So I kissed her. And then I kissed him.” Nan was looking a little breathless; this was the most excitement she’d had in a long time, she loved what the young people got up to. “And then I left with him.” Nodding to the pale blue saucer big eyes Alyssa winks and circulates her way away from the old dear and towards her god-father who is busy trying to find out where Struan has been hiding Helena.
Helping herself to the drink in her god-father’s hand Alyssa suddenly realises she might enjoy playing the game for a couple of days and shushes his enquiry. “Now then Uncle Dickie, you know we work in secrets. We could tell you everything – but we’d only have to kill you afterwards and that would just put a real downer on the weekend.”
And Richard Lytton laughs and the four new guests settle in for the evening, keeping small talk small and remembering to be caught every now and then in inappropriate positions appropriate to their advertised situations. Dave seems to take mixing with these strangers in his rangy stride, eliciting anecdotes without ever really saying much in return, asking opinions without putting himself in the spotlight. In all Alyssa realises that a weekend with self-centred socialites, light intellectuals and pseuds will not be as risky as she had feared, the people Dave is mixing with are flattered by his quiet attention without really questioning what he might be.
Later that evening, and still taking his role as host seriously, Lytton sees the McDonalds up to their rooms. First Struan and Helena then further down the corridor of the guest wing to the room assigned to Alyssa and her intriguing young man. Laughing he stopped by their door, his voice hinting at conspiracy. “Sweet Pea, I thought you would want to be away from your father and his lady. Surely it’s the worst thing ever to worry about a parent hearing you have sex, or, shock horror, actually hearing the old boy on the job yourself.”
“Eurgh, Uncle Richard did you have to say that? Oh, I’m gonna be stuck with that thought now.” She sticks out her tongue, pushing Dave through the door behind her. “One day, one day I’ll get you back for that. Just be glad I’m too tired to do anything now.” They had blamed their late arrival on a delayed flight, saying that a last minute hitch at work had meant that Dave had travelled a week before she was able to come over, it was a close run thing for them to make it at all. Lytton’s grin shows no remorse, he is happy to see her happy, happier still to hear her demand that the young man strip as the door closes behind her and he returns to his other, slightly less interesting, guests.
“Did we get away with it?”
“For now. I think the others are going for it, but Dickie’s not sure what to make of you.” She sighs, relief at being away from prying eyes evident as she leans against the door and watches him unpack their overnight bags. The slim man has done as she asked even though the comment was only for effect. Dave does not look at her. She realises that he is actually very good at not looking at things, completely managing to avoid reflections of his nakedness as he moves around the small suite.
Alyssa waits for Dave to get into the colonial style half-tester then orders him to switch the light off before leaving the safety of the door. No matter how compliant and non-threatening he’d been in the past days he was still meant to be a man and she finds herself tense and defensive by reflex. Undressing in the faux Edwardian bathroom she tries to shake herself out of her anxiety and reminds herself that she is in control. She can’t bring herself to think about the private meeting with Harrison before they left the base. The director might have encouraged her to think of it as being for the good of the programme, but he was just another man putting the pressure of expectations on her.
Getting into the bed next to him her voice sounds nervous to her ears as she reasserts her limits. “My body, my rules. Don’t expect me to get too close to that thing you’ve got. Whatever ideas you have I’d prefer it you kept them to yourself. Behave or you’re sleeping on the sofa and I don’t care if we are found out.”
Lying by her side, unable to reach out to her, Dave lies awake for a long time, listening as she finally relaxes and falls asleep. He has had a week of being intrigued by her blondness, of wondering what her athletic body would feel like compared to the fuller figure of Helena, trying to imagine what a younger woman would taste like to a palate savouring every new sensation. Helena had tried to encourage him to express his interest, but even he knew that her support was not whole hearted. Helena had wanted him from the start, she was the start; how now to take the initiative with a woman who didn’t like what came with him being male?