Mungo snorts contemptuously. 'Rubbish. It's simply that the truth hurts. I told her quite firmly that once they were living together she would see that the Awful Michael was not a handsome, darling old dog but a narrow-minded, intransigent old bore. I explained that her friends were already growing tired of the stories of his mind-numbing experiences in the Falklands War droning out over their dinner tables and that if she moved to Kent or Surrey, or wherever, that would be the end. She would wither and grow old trying to learn bridge and listening to The Archers with only the Awful Michael for company.
'There's nothing wrong with, The Archers says Camilla indignantly. 'I love The Archers.'
'But there is if it's your sole form of entertainment, Millie. There is more to life than The Archers. Kit loves the theatre, she loves going to exhibitions. Did you know that she's got the most delightful collection of small original paintings by practically unknown modern artists? She adores little jolly supper parties where everyone gossips too much, drinks too much, and we diss our friends. The Awful Michael was slowly annihilating her. It was like watching a candle being put out very, very slowly. Agony. She knew it really, of course, and she was in two minds anyway, so I just told her very firmly what was best for her.'
'Dear old Kit. She's so trusting. There's a naïvety as if she's never quite grown up. That's why she's so much fun. But the internet man was a bit of a downer for her and then her mother dying last year really knocked her sideways, though it was hardly unexpected. She was over ninety, after all.'
Mungo remembers Kit telephoning: 'Guess what? My old ma died this morning. I'm an orphan, Mungo. The funeral's on Friday. May I come on to you afterwards on Saturday?'
She mourned, drank too much, had Mopsa on her bed at night. They sat together on his sofa, heaped about with dogs borrowed for the occasion—'I need the dogs,' Kit explained to Camilla, who totally understood and brought Bozzy and Sam straight down to the smithy— and she talked and wept in turn.
'There's something timeless about her,' Camilla is saying. 'You never think about Kit in terms of age. You're the same, Mungo. Perhaps it's because neither of you has had the wear and tear of marriage and children.'
'You just try working with actors, sweetie,' he says. 'Plenty of wear and tear, I promise you.'
She laughs. 'But at the end of the day you say goodnight and walk out,' she says. 'Anyway, I'm glad. It means I have you to myself.' She links her arm in his as they turn in through the gateway from the lane. 'Do you ever regret anyone, Mungo?'
'I regret Ralph,' he says without thinking—and she looks up at him, surprised.
'Ralph? Gosh, that was a long time ago. Was he...? Did you...? I thought he was mad about Izzy. She was certainly crazy about him.'
'Ralph was...versatile,' he answers. 'Anyway, much too long ago to be regretting at this late date.'
'He went to the States, didn't he? I remember Izzy was devastated.'
Mungo nods. 'So was I. We were in the middle of rehearsals for Journey's End and he simply walked out. He was invited to audidition for a small film part but I never heard if he got it. By the time the dust settled he'd moved on. "He had softly and silently vanished away—For the Snark was a Boojum, you see." He was good at the young British gentleman's roles but he wasn't very talented beyond his youth and spectacularly good looks. Sorry. That sounds bitchy, doesn't it?'
Camilla frowns, trying to remember. 'I didn't care for him much. Rather too pleased with himself.'
The meadow below the house is being cut and they pause to watch the tractor as it wheels around the edge of the field. Tall grasses fall in golden clouds of pollen and dust; a shimmer of midges hangs and sways in the hot blue air, breaking and reforming in its endless dance. The dogs hurry on towards the house; a pretty, white-painted stone house set amongst camellia bushes and azaleas. The wooden frames of the sash windows are painted dark green to match the front door. Coming upon it here, at the edge of the moor in this wild ancient setting, one might think it like a house in a fairy story.
Mungo is comforted by its familiarity, glad that Archie and Camilla have been able to keep it much as it was through his and Archie's childhood. Camilla is watching him. 'Are you OK?' she asks.
'Yes,' he answers quickly. 'Yes, of course,' and then adds: 'It was just Kit reminding me that it's Izzy's birthday.'
'That's why you were thinking about Ralph.' She sounds almost relieved, as if some puzzle has been solved.
The dogs have disappeared in search of cold water to drink and cool slates to lie upon, and the house is full of sunshine.
'Yes,' he says. 'That's it. Izzy and Ralph,' and he changes the subject as they go into the house together.