By the time Kiki Belsey returned to 83 Langham, her first guest had arrived. It’s an unnatural
law of such parties that the person whose position on the guest list was originally the least secure
is always the first to arrive. Christian von Klepper’s invitation had been added by Howard, rejected
by Kiki, reinstated by Howard, removed by Kiki and then, at some later point, apparently extended
once more in secret by Howard, for here was Christian in the living room, nodding devotedly at his
host. From where she stood, Kiki could see only a sliver of both men, but you don’t need to see
much to get the picture.
She watched them. Howard was full of beans. Hands in his hair, leaning forward. He was
listening – but really listening. It’s amazing, thought Kiki, how attentive he can be when he puts
his mind to it. In his efforts to make peace with her, Howard had spent months showering some
of his attention on Kiki herself, and she knew all about the warmth it afforded. Christian under its
influence looked properly young for once. You could see him permitting himself some partial
release from the tense persona that a visiting lecturer of twenty-eight must assume if he has
ambitions of becoming an assistant professor. Well, good for him.
Kiki took a lighter from the kitchen drawer and began to kindle her tea lights wherever she
could find them. This should have been done already. And the quiches should have already
been heated. An appreciative rumble of Howard’s laughter reached her. And now he and the
boy swapped roles – now it was Howard doing the talking and Christian following every syllable
like a pilgrim. The younger man looked modestly at the floor, in response, Kiki assumed, to
some piece of flattery of her husband’s. Howard was more than generous that way; if flattered,
he repaid the favour tenfold.
Kiki went to the fridge and picked up a plate of chicken canapés. She hoped these would
serve as replacement for any opening witticism she might be expected to come up with. Her
encounter with Mrs Kipps earlier that day had left her empty of casual conversation. The real staff
– Monique and an unnamed friend of hers who was meant to be handing out food – were nowhere
to be seen.
Kiki opened the living-room door with her heel. Christian did not yet turn to acknowledge
her, but he was already pretending to like the dog, Murdoch, playing around his ankles. She
noticed he leaned forward awkwardly, attempting to mask his natural fear of dogs, all the time
clearly hoping for intervention before he touched the yapping creature. His elongated, lean
body struck Kiki as a comic, human version of Murdoch’s own.
‘Is he bothering you?’
‘Oh, no. Mrs Belsey, hello. No, not at all, not really. If anything, I was concerned he might
choke on my laces.’
‘Really?’ said Kiki, looking down dubiously.
‘No, I mean it’s fine... it’s fine.’ Christian’s features abruptly transformed into his pinched
attempt at a ‘party face’. ‘And anyway: happy anniversary! It’s so amazing. My God, what a