After the remainder of dinner, which progressed slowly and silently, interrupted at depressingly regular intervals by that cringing cough of Delia’s, the family dispersed to their various ploys, and Sir Humphrey knew he was right when he said that a holiday would bring the family back together. As he mused, Daniel was sulking in his room, Delia had gone off to bed as usual, Blaise was eagerly researching Pertisau, and Nathaniel was playing trains in the playroom. As for Aoife, she was washing up in the kitchen, singing softly to herself and gazing wistfully at her ukulele, which was hanging above the cutlery chest, forlorn and unused.
Sir Humphrey took a sharp breath as he got up from the table, rubbing the back of his head where a bald patch was gradually making itself noticed. He made his way into the living room, and sank down onto the sofa, where he was joined a few minutes later by his niece.
“Uncle Humph,” Aoife began, “why are we going to Austria now? Is there a special reason?”
Sir Humphrey drew his eyelids upwards, like the curtain of a stage, making a decision. Aoife was no longer a child. She deserved to know everything. “Close the door, will you?”
She did so, impassive, and came back to the fireplace, resting a hand on the mantelpiece and smiling sadly at the simple photo of her aunt in pride of place. Sir Humphrey caught the look, and empathy was in his eyes.
“I know it’s Delia, Uncle Humph. It couldn’t be anything else. But is it as bad as all that?”
“It’s bad enough, Aoife. Pneumonia is no joke, as Dr Kennedy told me. Our Dee really isn’t very well at all. She goes to bed early, she has no enthusiasm, and yet she is so bored. You’ve heard that hard cough of hers, which is one of the most worrying things about her condition. The sooner we get to Austria, the better.”
Aoife bit her lip. “What would happen if we didn’t go?” she asked bravely.
“Oh, I’m sure it wouldn’t be fatal. But she needs picking up urgently, just for health’s sake, or she may be weak for the rest of her life. I suppose she’d just go on getting worse. She mustn’t fall prey to a disease that might threaten her life forever. Besides that, I really think this family needs pulling together. We eat dinner together most nights, and Sunday lunches, but that really is all. You see how remote we are from one another, just in our activities.”
“What about Dan’s match?”
“Daniel must learn that this is a family and in a family you must help when someone’s in trouble. No allowances, however disappointing it may be for him. He can’t help letting down the team if it’s doctor’s orders. Blaise is just as upset about school, though I guess she will be pacified a lot more easily in the circumstances. And yet, letting down a sports team is nothing compared to letting down the team of the family. I should know, my dear. I was one of two brothers, but your father was always the adventurous one, and though I don’t like to put him down, he left me in the lurch on more than one occasion. Daniel’s at the difficult stage, I’m afraid. And that will make him even more difficult to deal with this time.”
“I suppose he must just put up with it.”
“Well, yes, he must. There is nothing else he can do, asides from finding more satisfaction in pulling his weight for his siblings as opposed to his friends, which is not likely, though it won’t be nearly as bad as he thinks. It’s quite heart-breaking how upset he is, though. This family is my first, last and greatest worry. I only have one chance to bring you all up properly. And I must be father and mother both to each of you. I don’t know what I’ll do when Delia and Blaise are in their teens. I can handle Daniel even in his worst bout of sulks, but a girl needs that womanly help.”
“Oh, I’m here for that. You needn’t worry about them quite yet, anyway. They’re still only young.” Aoife had been looking at him closely, and for the first time she realised that his locks were just thin fibres, and silvery grey like a torrent of rain at dusk.