Our extract this week is from The Guinness Girls: A Hint of Scandal by Emily Hourican.
‘Manning, bring cocktails to the drawing room,’ Maureen called. She pronounced her words carefully, lest it be obvious how much she had been drinking. Instead of going to change, as she usually would, she went straight to the drawing room, heels tapping on the wooden floors, muted every now and again by a rug, so that her progress felt weirdly disjointed: tap, tap, silence, tap, silence, tap, tap. Behind her, she heard snatches of conversation from the others ‘ . . . a sure winner’, ‘ . . . that extraordinary little man, almost as teensy as a jockey himself . . .’ In the drawing room, Duff and his friends, the day’s shooting done, sat in deep shadow.
They had neglected to turn on the lamps or draw the curtains and were lit only by the fire on one side and the last grey light of afternoon that struggled through the window on the other. In the furthest corner, Kathleen sat reading by the same bad light. The men were talking in low voices, a decanter set on a small table by Duff’s elbow, and they fell silent as Maureen stepped briskly in. ‘Darling, there you are,’ she said loudly. ‘I need you to adjudicate.’ She launched into a complicated story, told with extravagant gestures, about a betting syndicate they had made up, with various wins and losses, appealing to him to say where the money should now be disposed. ‘I cannot make head or tail of it,’ Duff said.
‘Then, Kathleen,’ Maureen demanded peremptorily, ‘you must decide.’ ‘I was about to give Caroline her bath,’ Kathleen said evasively, standing up and moving towards the door. ‘I’ll come back.’ ‘Don’t be silly. That’s what Nanny’s for. I do wish you’d stop hanging about the nursery. She’s not your child, or have you forgotten?’ There was one of those sharp little silences then, the kind that maybe fell by accident, because everyone somehow stopped talking at once, but then remained a fraction too long, because no one knew what to say to follow such a strange remark.
It was the kind of silence, Maureen knew, that often followed her these days – sharp pauses that were filled with all the things others didn’t dare say to her. ‘She’s not Nanny’s child either,’ Duff said, his words steady and distinct from the other side of the room. ‘Although anyone would be forgiven for thinking differently.’ ‘I’ll see her later,’ Maureen said, deciding to placate, ‘when Nanny brings her down.’ But something about Duff’s silence then made her irritable, so she put a record on the gramophone.
When Duff and his friends drew their chairs closer together, to continue talking, she turned the sound up higher and began to sway to the music, grabbing a cocktail glass from the tray that Manning produced. From it protruded an olive on a stick that was like a miniature exclamation mark to her every move. ‘Good God, must we have “Little White Lies” at that volume?’ Duff called. ‘Some of us like a spot of fun. Not your lot, of course, but the rest of us.’ The way she said ‘your lot’ was as insolent as she could make it and Duff, nettled, responded, ‘Turn it down, Maureen. Infernal racket!’ ‘Oh, don’t be such a stick.’ She changed tack suddenly.
‘You must have all bored each other quite enough by now with the India Question and those ridiculous unemployment figures.’ As always, she was secretly surprised at her own infallible instinct for the most violent blow. ‘Nothing ridiculous about three million men without jobs,’ Duff said. ‘Especially when they take to the streets to demand help to feed their families. These are men who came back from France, from Flanders, who left their comrades dead in the mud, and found the country they fought for couldn’t even give them a living wage. Street violence isn’t the answer, but one can hardly wonder they’re angry.’ ‘That damned war. I wish it had been the War To End All Talking About Wars . . .’ Maureen drawled, scratching the needle violently across ‘Little White Lies’ and putting on something louder and faster. ‘How much you dislike discussing anything you find unpleasant,’ Duff said, almost in wonderment. ‘Doesn’t everyone?’ she asked in honest surprise. ‘Anyway, why don’t they get jobs if they’re so keen? It can’t be all that difficult. Even you have one.’ Again that sharp, uncomfortable silence.
From the corner of her eye, Maureen saw Stephen edge out of the door. The girl with the shiny black bob slid down into a pile of cushions on the sofa as though she wanted to hide. ‘Come and dance!’ she demanded. ‘Baby, you’ll dance?’ Baby shook her head mutely and turned back to the game of patience she was dealing. Unlike Stephen, she was too indifferent to leave, Maureen knew, but neither had she any intention of being drawn into the row. ‘No one wants to dance, Maureen. Now turn it down.’
Duff was angrier, his voice deepening. ‘Andrew wants to dance with me, don’t you, darling?’ Andrew, a friend of Baby’s, barely more than a boy, was on a visit for the first time. Maureen had already decided he was idiotic and tedious, but now he would do. ‘Of course,’ Andrew said, although she saw him cast a wary look at Duff. He caught up her hand and began to twirl her about energetically. A couple of the others joined them, though without much enthusiasm. The record ended and Maureen put on another, catching Andrew’s hand again and drawing him closer to her.
The music was slower now, and she danced pressed against the boy, but keeping her head turned so she could see Duff from the corner of her eye. When Duff did nothing, she put her arms around Andrew’s neck and drew him closer still to her, slowing her movements even more so they barely swayed together. Duff watched them for a moment, then rose from his chair and began to walk from the room. His friends, almost as if they had predicted his move, rose with him and placed themselves around him as though a bodyguard.
Seeing them go, Maureen smiled up at Andrew and placed his arm more tightly around her waist. ‘How like you to invite only people who are as foolish as you are,’ Duff said, as he reached the door. ‘As long as it’s my money that keeps this place going, I’ll invite who I want,’ Maureen called after him, her words like scissors through silk. And then he was gone. Andrew tried to keep dancing but Maureen pushed him away from her and removed the needle from the record. ‘It’s time to dress anyway,’ she said. ‘Kathleen, draw me a bath.’ She saw Baby twitch irritably, knowing that would be the end of the hot water, but she didn’t care.
The Guinness Girls: A Hint
of Scandal by Emily Hourican,
published by Hachette Books
Ireland, is available now.