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A Winter's Afternoon

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“And you can jolly well stay there,” said Harriet to the notes covering her desk. Having spent the morning battling with railway timetables and Ordnance Survey maps to get all her characters to the right places at the right times, she had lost patience with their various whims and vagaries and was seriously contemplating adding a couple more murders to the list. “Your romantic sub-plot can wait, my lad.”

It was a miserable day, dark and filthy wet, so that you could barely tell if the sun had risen at all. Peter was out entertaining Miss Climpson and her ladies at their annual Christmas treat, and Harriet had intended to spend the day virtuously toiling away at a series of fenland murders. Now, however, she felt suddenly disinclined to toil. Like a schoolgirl abandoning her homework, she left the various villagers to their soggy, murderous predicaments with a mixture of guilt, relief and glee.

Instead Harriet made her way down to the kitchen, procured a flask of coffee and a plate of sandwiches and secluded herself away in the library.

The library, in Harriet’s experience, existed in a sort of permanent, timeless twilight, with warm lamps placed strategically about the room and the curtains drawn against the weather. Logically it must still have existed in the height of summer when the sun was blazing, but Harriet had never seen it and found it hard to imagine. Sunshine seemed too bright for the soft leather of the books and the gleaming bronze sculptures.

It was also the room in the flat that made Harriet feel closest to Peter. Looking over the bookshelves felt like meeting a host of his friends and acquaintances, seeing snapshots of his interests over the years. What had prompted Peter to acquire thirty-four books on book-binding? Did the passion for Palestrina come before or after the infatuation with diseases of the blood?

Harriet selected a small unassuming volume of translated memoirs by a Benedictine monk in Lisbon, on the grounds that it was the furthest she could find from the experiences of a murderer in Essex, and curled up on a sofa. She ate the sandwiches and drank the coffee almost without looking up from the page, and when tea and buttered crumpets appeared she consumed them likewise.

When Harriet finally closed the book and looked up, Peter was sitting on the other side of the room, quietly reading a newspaper. He looked like a painting - ‘Portrait of A Gentleman Studying Current Affairs’.

“I take it Dom Afonso was good company today?” he said when he noticed her looking at him.

Harriet blinked, and medieval Portugal shimmered like a heat haze in front of her eyes before fading away. “I couldn’t face any more time-tabling,” she said. “The weather’s been beastly. Hello, darling.”

Peter put the newspaper down and came across to join Harriet, bestowing a kiss on her temple before arranging himself on the seat next to her. The textures and colours of him seemed to jump out at Harriet after her hours spent looking at mental images - the fine weave of his suit, the warm ivory of his shirt, the way his fair hair darkened in neatly combed lines with pomade. “He does have a rather sun-soaked quality, especially when gardening. Voltaire would have approved.”

“How were your ladies?”

“Marvellous. I kissed them all and Miss Climpson nearly fainted.”

“She did no such thing. She’s made of much sterner stuff than that. If she can cope with murderers and other assorted ne’er-do-wells, then she can survive a kiss from you.”

Peter held one hand to his chest in mock outrage. “My love, surely you are not taking into account the powerful nature of my kisses? As other are of wine, surely mine are of sherry at the very least. Amontillado, I’d say, although I’ll defer to your judgement on this.”

Harriet hmmed and tilted her face up obediently. Peter kissed her like it was the first time - with joy and tenderness and unabashed desire, his hand in her hair both proprietary and reverent.

“Oloroso,” said Harriet when at last they parted and she had regained her breath.“Or probably one of those port wines I can never remember the name of.” She rested her head on Peter’s shoulder.

Peter put his arm around her and rested his chin on the top of her head. “I thank the judges for their consideration.”

They rested there for a short while without speaking or moving, Harriet in that blissful, dozy state where she was perfectly aware of her surroundings but felt no need to react in any way. Peter’s jacket smelled faintly of perfume and beyond that was his cologne, a woody scent with the faintest hint of figs. Harriet felt as if she was basking in the sun in a Portuguese garden, and she had to fight the urge to stretch and purr like a cat.

“My mother gave me that book,” said Peter eventually, in a quiet, meditative voice. “She said, and I quote: such a lovely man, really very spiritual but not at all off-putting, and lots of sensible ideas about using for herbs for medicinal purposes, and isn’t it a shame that quinces seems to have fallen out of fashion when they’re such a lovely fruit if you know what to do with them?”

“I would have married you for your mother,” said Harriet sleepily. “You should have introduced me to her sooner.”

“The thought has occurred to me,” said Peter. “It seems rather like cheating, somehow.”

The clock on the mantelpiece chimed seven o’clock in its soft, mellifluous tones. Harriet made a noise of discontent before reluctantly disentangling herself from the arms of her beloved. “I should go and change for dinner,” she said, stifling a yawn.

“This perpetual darkness business is rather discombobulating,” said Peter sympathetically.

“I shouldn’t mind this being the shortest day of the year if it felt like there had actually been daylight,” said Harriet. “I feel like the sun took one look at the weather and decided not to bother. And I can’t entirely blame it.”

“There are some compensations, of course.” Peter rose and held out his hand. “I can’t say I entirely object to a long night when I can spend it with you.”

Harriet took his hand and let him lead her out of the room, and it felt like dawn breaking.