It would be difficult to get away from the tennis party. As ever, spinster acolytes flocked about the tea urn, awaiting her widower father. He would look to Claire to repel the most ardent. The dusty, bony ladies in their yellowing tennis dresses had long jockeyed in a genteel fashion to become the Doctor's second wife. He had other plans. Claire's discrete orchestration of his habits suited him well. His pre-lunch tipples, the visits to the plump and accommodating lady in Ballymore, the hand resting a moment too long on the thighs of the young wives - all given a veneer of respectability by Claire's continuing presence in the gloomy old house.
Julian was late. She remembered the powerful arabesque of his tennis serve and her cheeks warmed. When Julian had pulled her towards the rhododendrons last Sunday, she had felt faint with longing and terror. He would write to Father, reassuring him of his intentions towards Claire. The subaltern's paltry pay didn't matter with her little nest egg from Mother. A small cottage that would flourish warmly under her experienced husbandry and oh! The milky, mewling babies that would surely follow. Farewell to the dark cold house, to the streams of sick and impoverished patients, to turning a blind eye to Father's indiscretions. She would be free, happy and loved.
She had seen the postman creaking up the drive on his ancient bicycle, Julian's letter must surely have been in that battered leather bag. Father would have read it by now; Cook always announced the arrival of the post by banging on his study door and propping the usual handful of dull envelopes on the shelf in the hall.
Indoors, it was chilly after the brave April sun. Claire crept to the shelf. Empty. Heart thundering, she chewed at a nail. The study door opened suddenly and Father's tennis shoes squeaked across the parquet. He stopped close to her, thrumming the strings of his racquet with his thumb.
Claire took a huge breath. 'Father, there was a letter. Julian...'
“Julian is an impudent boy. I have telephoned to him and explained that he has misunderstood your intentions and your duty to me precludes your ever taking a husband.” His serpentine hiss chilled her. “I have told him that your inheritance remains under my control as long as I choose. I have also explained the tragic medical reasons that you are unable to bear children. He won't bother you any more. Please tell Cook to bring the seed cake. I expect you at tea shortly.”
The empty shelf blurred and swam as she folded silently, slowly to the floor.