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Authors: Belva Plain

After the Fire

BOOK: After the Fire
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PRAISE FOR
BELVA PLAIN
AND
AFTER THE FIRE

“What makes
After the Fire
shine is the author's unsparing and sometimes tortuous narrative of the unraveling of the ideal familiy… the veteran novelist is superb at spiking her tale with some fabulous twists.”


New York Post

“AN ACCOMPLISHED STORYTELLER.”


The Washington Post

“BELVA PLAIN WRITES WITH AUTHORITY AND INTEGRITY.”


San Francisco Chronicle

“Belva Plain is a talented tale-spinner with an almost Dickensian ability to keep her stories going.”


The Philadelphia Inquirer

“[Plain] offers… compelling stories about women coping with life's crises.”


People

BOOKS BY BELVA PLAIN

THE SIGHT OF THE STARS

HER FATHER'S HOUSE

LOOKING BACK

AFTER THE FIRE

FORTUNE'S HAND

LEGACY OF SILENCE

HOMECOMING

SECRECY

PROMISES

THE CAROUSEL

DAYBREAK

WHISPERS

TREASURES

HARVEST

BLESSINGS

TAPESTRY

THE GOLDEN CUP

CRESCENT CITY

EDEN BURNING

RANDOM WINDS

EVERGREEN

PROLOGUE

I
n a house where women are gathered for a meeting of Mothers Without Custody, she searches the room with anxious eyes, as if some answer might be hidden there for her. It is a neglected, cheerless room in which, with its gray curtains and wilted amaryllis that pleads for water, the very air is thick with sorrow.

The desperate, poor immigrant whose husband has fled back to India with their two daughters sits with her face in her hands, for she has neither the means nor the worldly knowledge to pursue them. The fashionable woman with the coral scarf and the handsome earrings has lost her twelve-year-old boy to the charms of his father's lakeside mansion. The recovered alcoholic pleads in vain for a second chance.

To them and to all of them, her heart goes out. Still, there is never any pain as piercing as one's own; she cannot stay here for another minute. Quietly she rises and goes outside into the muggy summer noon.

From the top of the hill where her car is parked, she looks down at the rooftops below and thinks about the random cruelties that may be hidden under any one of those roofs. Strange—or not so strange—that, standing at a window in Paris not very long ago, she had the same thought….

CHAPTER ONE

S
olid in status, circled by wide lawns and lavish shrubbery, the house stood where the outer suburbs met the countryside and the road wound toward the Berkshire hills. The land rose in ripples. In the morning the rising sun washed the hilltops in hazy pink light; at day's end the afterglow, lingering above them, lay like a scarlet stripe between the dark land and a foaming gray sea of clouds.

On such an evening, Hyacinth put aside the sketches and charcoal on her desk to gaze with pleasure at the scene. Except for the faintest rustle of leaves in the warm September air, it was quite still. And at the open window, she too stood quite still, in awe of the evening.

A mood, one of those that in occasional self-mockery she called her “poetic moments,” had overcome her. Yet the mood ought not to be mocked, especially now when she was so incredibly happy. So secure, contented, and loved—so incredibly happy!

Abruptly then, she heard voices. Her parents, following their custom, were sitting on the open porch below. She had never eavesdropped and was certainly not about to do so now. But she had heard her name.

“Hy is twenty-one,” Dad said. “She's not a child anymore.”

“Hyacinth is twenty-one going on twelve.”

“You amaze me, Francine. Here's a girl, an A student, only one year out of college, and already interning in one of the finest museums in the country. And,” he went on, in the proud, earnest tone that a father assumes when he is boasting about an only daughter, “she's an artist! She'll make a name for herself. Wait and see.”

“I'm not talking about academics. I'm talking about emotions. Haven't you noticed how she walks around with a smile all the time? I wouldn't be surprised if she was already planning a wedding. Oh, I'd like to ship that fellow to Australia, or Tierra del Fuego, or anyplace.”

Hy pulled the desk chair to the window and sat there dumbfounded.

“What have you really got against him, Francine? All right, so you haven't been enthusiastic about him, and that's your privilege, but why so vehement? Why?”

“He'll break her heart, Jim, that's why. Gerald's a chaser. I see it. I feel it in my bones. Right now he's struggling to get ahead, but once there, he'll drop her. I don't trust him. He'll chase after women, and women will chase after him. He's too gorgeous. He ought to be in Hollywood. Hyacinth's no match for that kind of business.”

“For God's sake, your imagination is running away
with you. He's certainly faithful enough. Three times every week, plus every weekend.”

“I don't say he can't be sincere at the moment. It's possible, after a fashion. She certainly has qualities that you don't find everywhere you look. Deep intelligence. Taste. Dignity. And she so obviously adores him. That flatters a man.”

“I still say you're making a mountain out of a molehill.”

“Jim! I'm talking about humiliation. I'm talking about heartbreak. He's not for her. He's not!”

Hyacinth's heart hammered in her ears. Not for me? What do you know about him, or about me, either? You know nothing about my life.

“She's so good, Jim. A genuinely good human being.”

“Yes, yes, that she is.”

As clearly as if she had been sitting down there on the porch with them, Hyacinth saw their faces: her father's pale eyes, so much like her own, reflective, looking off into the distance; her mother's darting eyes, bright and blue, with the two vertical lines between them that appeared whenever she was alert or emphatic.

“I don't see it at all, Francine. He's agreeable, well mannered, smart, medical school, medical honorary society. Pretty desirable, if you ask me. And the fact is, I rather like him.”

“Yes, he's likable enough. But I tell you again, he's too shrewd for her. She's a total innocent. What does she know about the world? Or about people? The only men she's gone out with are college boys and maybe a couple
of artists she's met at her job. And not even many of them. Gerald's taken up practically all of this year.”

The best year of my life. The year that's changed my life.

“She's a typical artist, a student, a loner, and always has been.”

“A lot of people are artists and students and loners. A lot of remarkable people.”

“Yes, and they are often the ones who get hurt the most.”

“Well, if you feel this way, why don't you talk to her about it?”

“Talk to her? For all her sweetness, she can still be stubborn as a mule when she wants to be, can't she? Do I have to tell you? How long have we been asking her to stop smoking? And has she stopped? It's odd, too. She doesn't look like the type to go around with a cigarette in her hand.”

Should she run downstairs now and confront them with her outrage? But she sat there, unable to move, and waited for more.

Dad spoke quietly. “You're getting yourself all worked up.”

“What shall I do? Sit calmly watching a man get what he can out of my child?”

“What do you mean by ‘get what he can’? Sex?”

“Who knows? But there are other things besides sex.”

Dad persisted. “Such as?”

“Look around. What's bad about this house? Pretty comfortable here, isn't it? He noticed things, too, the few times he was here. He kept looking around. I saw him.”

“Well, why wouldn't he be curious? It's only natural. He's lived poor all his life, and he's up to his ears in debt to the university. It's not like you to be so critical. It's not like you to be cynical.” There was a sigh in Dad's voice. He hated argument.

“Not cynical. Realistic.”

“Let's go inside. The mosquitoes are out.”

But Francine was not finished. “Don't be misled by Hy's brains or her energy or her ambition. At heart, she's a bookworm. Give her a book or a new CD, and she's happy. Her wants are simple. She's simple. And that fellow isn't. They don't even like the same things.”

Dad laughed. “How much chemistry did you know or like when you married me?”

“That was different. You were Mr. Honorable, Mr. Salt-of-the-Earth. And you still are,” Francine said softly. She gave a small, rueful laugh. “She's soft, like you. Not like me, Jim.”

“Well, we've been a great combination anyway, haven't we? Come on in with me. This is a big, useless fuss about nothing. Believe me. And even if it were as serious as you say, there wouldn't be anything we could do about it.”

The screen door slammed below. Night came falling out of the sky. Still Hyacinth sat, trembling in the dimness. She had been wounded, degraded, and insulted.

What cruel things to have said about Gerald! He was so gentle, so thoughtful—so
decent
! Decent, you would say if you had to sum him up in a word. He worked so hard, he had been given so little. Yet he never complained. He was happy with even the smallest pleasure
that came his way—a book on his birthday or an occasional dinner at this house.

I should go right down there and defend him, she thought fiercely. What am I waiting for? But her legs were weak. As water is sucked out of a basin, so all the energy she had possessed an hour before had drained away.

There was no use trying to do any more work this night, so she lit a cigarette and cleared the desk, putting away the charcoal and the folio of sketches. After a while she undressed and lay down on the bed.

Fear came suddenly. Oh God, if anything should happen! Could anything happen? If Gerald were here, he would hold and comfort her…. So she lay, while her mind drifted back and back.

How clearly she remembered their first meeting, the place and hour, the first words, and even what she had worn. She had worn a raincoat, the day had been raw, and the museum's parking lot had been a puddle of mud. She had started down the hill and was passing the university when, through the rearview mirror, she saw a young man standing in front of the medical school, unprotected against the downpour by either coat or umbrella. He was clasping to his chest a bundle of books in a plastic bag, and he was soaked through.

She backed up. “Need a lift?”

“I'm waiting for the bus. It goes on the hour, but I think I've just missed it.”

“You have. It's ten after. I'll take you where you're going. Climb in.”

“Thanks, but I'm heading the other way.”

“No matter. You can't stay out in this.” You wouldn't want to leave your dog outside in such weather, so cold, with fall in the air.

“I won't refuse. Just as far as the next bus stop, then. That would be great.”

“You don't have to wait for the bus,” she said as they neared the covered shelter. “Where do you live? I'll take you.”

“Hey! I live in Linden. No, drop me off here at the stop.”

She had never known anyone who lived in Linden. It was a factory town with a railroad bridge and truck traffic, a place you barely glimpsed and skirted as you passed on your way to someplace else. And it was a good ten miles distant.

His books were still pathetically clutched to his chest. She had hardly seen his face, half-concealed as it was between tousled wet hair and a hunched, sodden collar. Now she looked: It was a nice, respectable face.

“We'll go to Linden,” she said.

He protested. “Oh no, I can't let you do that.”

“You can't not let me unless you jump out of the car.”

“Okay, then.” He smiled. “Gerald's my name. What's yours?”

“Hyacinth. I hate it.”

Now why had she said that? Always apologizing for the silly name! It was a habit that ought to be broken.

“Why so? It's a gentle name. It goes with your face.”

Gentle.
What an odd thing to say!

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