‘It’s not a life that suits everyone,’ says Mrs Perkins. ‘Helensburgh is a small place, and young boys a long way from home are hard work. Well, this is what Mr Perkins tells me, anyway.’ She takes a long breath and twirls the strands of hair which have worked loose from her bun. ‘And you, Mr Auden? Will you be getting married soon?’
Wystan laughs, a bark of surprise. ‘No, Mrs Perkins.’ He leans forward conspiratorially. ‘I was engaged not so long ago, but I’m afraid the lady broke it off.’
Mrs Perkins’ eyes widen, and she too leans forward. An involuntary grin peeps at the corners of her pale lips. ‘Really? Oh, you must be heartbroken!’
Wystan recognises, in the fading Mrs Perkins, a fellow gossip. A smirk dances across his face. He cannot keep it at bay.
‘She found me disgusting, I’m afraid to say.’ He watches how this volley will fall. Mrs Perkins stares at him. Colour has crept into her cheeks. This is a conversation! With actual information!
Finally, she says, ‘And . . . are you? Are you . . . disgusting?’ Wystan slumps back, not breaking the eye contact between them. ‘I’m afraid I am,’ he says.
There is a silence during which Wystan can hear Mrs Clyde instructing Olive in how to hang the pans, far below in the kitchen. Her fierce, almost impenetrable, accent snakes thinly into the room. Then there is another sound: a high-pitched whistle, or is it a wheeze? He realises the sound is coming from Mrs Perkins, who is pressing her pale fingers to her pale lips in an effort to staunch a wave of giggling. She winces in what looks like pain.
‘Mr Auden. Forgive me—’ Mrs Perkins surrenders. Her fingers slip away, she bows her head and her shoulders shake. The sound released is really quite raucous. Dirty, even, Wystan thinks. Mrs Perkins is not all she seems.
‘I’m so sorry.’ She gathers herself. ‘You must remember I have been here for many years, and seen many masters come and go. It’s so very dull for me. But never, in all my days, have I encountered anyone so perfectly unsuited to being here as you are. The mismatch is quite marvellous!’
Wystan’s smile fades slightly. ‘Mrs Perkins, I rather need this job.’
‘Oh, Mr Auden, you are a breath of fresh air. Look at you! That is what makes you absolutely unsuitable, and also absolutely perfect. You will give Mr Perkins quite a run for his money, which is what he needs, between you and me.’
The lady clasps his hand. ‘I can’t tell you how I have longed to meet someone like you. Someone alive! Someone disgusting! And you simply must call me Daphne! No stupid formality between us. We shall drink and tell each other our secrets! We are going to be great friends.’
Wystan understands now. Beneath the surface of this wan invalid is an absolute subversive. ‘And you must call me Wystan,’ he says. ‘Shall we make a dent in that gin you’re hiding up there?’