"Nancy, do you know where Titty is?"
The anxiety in Susan's voice woke her more effectively than an alarm clock.
"Downstairs fussing over Sinbad?" she suggested hopefully.
"I've looked. No Titty and no Sinbad."
Nothing for it but to get up then. It was still dark. Nancy felt about for her clothes. Winter clothes were always worse in a hurry, with fastenings that didn't just when you wanted them to. Nancy had tried cajoling her mother into buying her a pair of slacks, hopefully pointing out that Aunt Helen wore them. So far she had had no success. Perhaps if she could prove she had stopped growing? Her marks on the kitchen door post had scarcely changed from July to Christmas. Peggy had grown over half an inch.
Susan was already dressed, but then Susan had left her clothes neatly folded in two piles – last night's best frock and ordinary clothes to put on this morning. Nancy tossed last night's crimson velveteen frock, that she secretly rather liked, on the bed and found yesterday's skirt and jumper underneath.
"He isn't sleeping on someone else's bed is he?" Nancy asked.
"It's Titty we've got to find." Susan was impatient.
"When we do find Titty, it will be a lot easier to get her to come back with us if we can tell her that Sinbad's safe." Nancy pointed out. Susan looked at Nancy even more anxiously.
"Shall I check in Mother's room?" asked Nancy. "I can do it without waking her."
Mother thought she woke up easily. Nancy knew otherwise. There had been the little matter of the back-door key once or twice. The trick was to get back before anyone noticed it was unbolted. It had been a close call the night of the war with the Swallows, and that hadn't been the only close call.
Sinbad was not in Mother's room. Nancy slipping out of Mother's room met Susan coming out of Bridget's room.
"Shall I wake Peggy to help look for her?" Nancy whispered.
"She'll have gone back to that house. Let's just go and fetch her back now. John woke up when I checked the boys' room. I told him where we were going."
They bundled themselves into coats, hats and gloves and set off down the road. It was definitely getting lighter now, although there was still an iron-hard frost. Nancy wished she didn't feel so thirsty. They had nearly reached "Mrs Smith's house" although of course it wasn't, when they met Titty, with Sinbad in her arms walking along the lane before them.
"I knew there wasn't anyone there, so there was no danger." Titty was almost defiant as she said it. Susan shot an expressive and apologetic look at Nancy. Nancy picked up her pace to get out of ear-shot. She was well ahead of the other two and the sky was washed with orange and gold and pink when she met John.
"Susan's talking to her." Nancy said, by way of explanation. "She found Sinbad."
"I'm sorry you got dragged out."
"Well, I'm not." Ten minutes ago, Nancy would have said that and hoped she meant it. Now that the sun was just beginning to rise and she was walking briskly beside John towards breakfast, she knew she meant it. It was just misty enough for them to watch the sun rising comfortably. They walked in silence. Nancy waited until the complete disc was above the horizon before saying, "Happy New Year."
John stopped and turned to her.
"Happy New Year."
There was a moment's hesitation. Nancy was not even quite sure what she wanted to happen next. Perhaps John felt the same. There was the scraping sound on an upstairs window in the house behind her.
"That Scott creature scraping ice off." said John. They carried on walking.
Nancy was expecting a certain amount of trouble when they got back. It was after eight o'clock and Peggy would have been furious to wake up in an empty bedroom. She had better let Peggy have her say. Nancy got as far as the first floor landing when she met her mother coming out of the bathroom.
"Nancy, could you come into my bedroom for a moment."
Mother slightly flustered might be cajoled. A calm, composed Mother meant more trouble. Mother sat down on edge of the bed and patted the space beside her.
"Sit down here, Nancy."
Reluctantly, Nancy sat. This was getting worse by the minute. There was a pause. Mother was setting her words in order before she started.
"Nancy, I know you like Mrs Walker and wouldn't wish to cause her any trouble. And I'm sure you never even thought about this, and I'm rather glad in a way. I've don't like to sound like Aunt Maria, but perhaps you and John taking yourselves off for a walk quite so early wasn't the best thing you could do. It looks as though you were trying to avoid being seen. People can be uncharitable."
"Mrs Scott can be, you mean."
"Mary Walker has to live with her neighbours. Things are not quite the same here as they are at home, where people know you. I just want you to think about it."
The last thing Nancy wanted to do was think about it. Mother put a reassuring arm around her shoulder. It was completely unbearable. Nancy jumped up and went to look out of the window. John was carrying the Susan's present in, from where it had been drying in the outhouse.
"Susan woke me up. She couldn't find Titty or Sinbad and she had searched the house for them. We went out to look for Titty. We were already on our way back when John came out to meet us." Nancy said all this in a low, steady voice. She could see that Mother was a little upset, but Nancy could not bring herself even to smile at her. She left Mother sitting on the bed and went downstairs again.
John was in the hall, propping the jigsaw holder carefully against the umbrella stand.
I'm not absolutely sure the varnish did dry." he explained. "It was probably too cold out there. Once it's been inside for a day, I'm sure it will be fine. You gave me so much help with it, that it is really just as much a present from you."
"You did most of it. I just held things still." Nancy said hastily. John looked at more closely at her, as well as he could in the dim, chequered light that came through the glass in the front door. The Battenburg-cake pattern matched the other windows at the front of the house.
"You don't seem quite yourself." he observed, very cautiously.
She didn't feel like herself. She certainly wasn't Captain Nancy, Terror of the Seas and Amazon pirate at the moment.
"Mother wasn't very happy."
After a pause he said, "I think Susan and Titty might be feeling the same way as you do at the moment."
She was sure they were not, but didn't say so.
Really, if it hadn't been for the combined efforts of Captain Curtledge and Bridget, Susan might have had a very much less happy birthday. They, however, were determined to be cheerful. Peggy and Roger, both inclined to be offended at being left out again, had cheered up by the time everyone reached the toast and marmalade stage of breakfast.
John was not really surprised to see Titty that looked as though she might have been weeping or to see Susan still looking worried. He was surprised to see Nancy so subdued. Her vocabulary had gradually been recovering some of its normal piratical flavour over the past day or so, but not a timber had been shivered this morning.
When breakfast was over and Susan had opened all her presents, Mrs Walker sent them all out for a walk, declining all offers of help wiht cooking dinner. In the crisp air and bright sunlight, even Titty and Susan began to cheer up. They walked along showing the Blacketts paths and places that were barely familiar to the Swallows, although Father and Bridget knew them well enough. Little groups formed, split up and reformed in various combinations as the explorers found something of interest, decided to see what was on the other side of the hedge or thought of something they had to tell each other.
They had been walking for hour before John realised that he would not be able to speak to Nancy by herself. She was not avoiding him, but whenever they were walking together, someone else also seemed to be there. If they lagged behind, she challenged him to race her until they caught someone else up. If they were ahead of the others, she managed to find something in a hedgerow that would interest Bridget, or remembered something she wanted to tell Susan or Titty. John, not sure what she meant by it, walked on ahead to join Father while Nancy was showing Bridget a birds' nest from the previous year. It took only a few minutes for Nancy to catch up and ask Father a question about the Mediterranean. Apparently, she was determined to spend as much time as possible with him but not to allow any chance for private talk. He didn't know why. This time, he was determined to trust her, however mystifying her behaviour was.
Molly noticed that Nancy was avoiding her, but wasn't especially worried. Nancy never really stayed angry for very long. Captain Curtledge seemed very happy to stroll along at the end of their straggling line with her, making sure that no-one, especially Roger or Bridget, got left behind. He was an agreeable companion and she was enjoying a conversation that did not revolve around daughters or sailing dinghies or the minutiae of everyday life around the Lake. She could not help being aware that the Captain was paying her particular attention and could not help, too, enjoying it. As they approached the Walkers' house, Molly felt a little trace of regret, strangely mixed with a hint of relief. She was not altogether surprised when the Captain bent down and said to Bridget, who was beginning to tire now and was holding Molly's hand,
"If you run ahead now you could be the first back."
The idea charmed Bridget, who raced off as fast as she could.
"I hope you don't mind me saying this," began the Captain, "especially as we've only just met but if I don't say something now I think I'll end up regretting a might-have-been for a long, long time. I wouldn't like this to be the last time I meet you. I like you very much indeed."
For the second time that day, Molly found herself picking her words with extremely care. The middle-aged (and she supposed they were both middle-aged, since neither of them was young) can be hurt just as easily as the young and the hurt may last longer. Pretending to misunderstand his tone and responding only to his words would be unkind.
"I like you very much and would value your friendship." she emphasised the last word. "We would always be happy to see you, and I think you would like the Lake, if you ever chose to visit."
She looked up into his face. He was smiling slightly and looking anxious. He had not understood. She would have to speak more plainly. She took a deep breath.
"My husband was.." she stopped, unable to carry on. There were still days, mercifully rare, when even to think his name brought down a crashing wave of despair and loneliness, far too bitter for mere tears.
His grip on her gloved hand, firm but not ungentle, brought her back to the present, to the winter sunlight and the bare hawthorn hedges and a thrush singing somewhere nearby.
"Thank you for helping me understand." he said softly. "I should not have spoken and caused you such distress. I'm sorry."
She took his the arm he offered, as they started to walk slowly back to the house. "I'm glad you did say something. For such a mild word, regret is a very cruel emotion. I would not wish it on anybody, let alone a friend."
By the time they reached the front door, the children were all inside. They could hear the tap running in the bathroom above the porch. Muddy shoes and boots were lined up in a neat row on one side of the tiled porch floor. An enticing smell drifted from the kitchen. Sinbad darted across the threshold behind them and stalked across the empty hall, through the open door into the equally empty drawing room. Still with her hand on his arm, she stopped in the middle of the hall, under the electric light-shade. He was not an especially tall man, but she was short and had to stand on her toes to reach his cheek.
"Mistletoe kisses don't have to mean anything but friendship." she said.
John, waiting impatiently on the landing for Roger to finish in the bathroom, had heard the front door open. The moment Mrs Blackett started to speak, he started to hurry upstairs to his own bedroom, but could not help hearing the whole sentence. He supposed it answered the question that he had, perhaps, been meaning to ask Nancy. Anything else was after all rather improbable. A fortnight ago, a week ago even, he had felt he would have given anything to be certain he and Nancy were still friends. They still were and he was grateful. Resolutely, he pushed the vague wish for something involving more kisses to the back of his mind.