Authors: Jojo Moyes
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Language Arts, #Composition & Creative Writing, #General
Matt McCarthy shook his head.
‘It’s a bit of a mess.’ Isabel was talking too fast, as she often did with people who seemed possessed of unusual self-assurance. ‘We’ll have to sort it out bit by bit. As you can probably tell, we’re not the most practical of families . . . I’m sure I have a lot to learn.’ She pushed a strand of long hair off her face. She had heard a hint of desperation in her voice.
He looked at her steadily. ‘Sure you’ll be all right,’ he said.
Laura had just finished sorting out the freezer in the garage. She wiped her hands on her jeans and went over to the van. As Matt got out, he surprised her with a kiss full on the lips. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Good day, was it?’
‘Not really,’ he said. ‘But it’s improving.’
God, it was lovely to see him smile. Laura grabbed his belt and pulled him to her. ‘Maybe I can improve it further,’ she said, and then, ‘Steak for tea. With my special pepper sauce.’
His appreciation came in the form of a low, rumbling murmur, which vibrated pleasantly against her skin.
He closed the van door, put an arm round her shoulders and walked with her to the back door. She took his hand, letting it rest against her collarbone, keen to prolong the moment. ‘You’ve had two cheques in from the Pinkerton job. I’ve banked them. Did you hear that music earlier? Anthony thought it was a fox caught in a trap.’
‘I heard. In fact, I went to see our new neighbours.’ Laura tripped over the old dog, who uttered a whimper of protest. ‘Oh, Bernie . . . You went over there?’
‘Thought it wouldn’t hurt to say hello. We are neighbours, after all.’
She waited for the barbed comment, the bitter curl of his lip. But none came. Even the mention of the big house hadn’t bothered him. Oh, please let things turn round, Laura prayed. Please let him have come to terms with it. Please let him cheer up again.
‘Well, that was a good thing to do. I’ll pop over later in the week.’ She tried to keep her fears from her face. ‘I’ve got to tell you, Matt. It’s lovely to see you smiling again. Really lovely.’
Her husband stooped and kissed her nose. His lips were cold against her skin. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ he said.
There were not many people of her generation who could say they had married the first man they fell in love with, but the moment Isabel Hayden met Laurent Antoine Delancey she knew she would look no further. This conclusion, which popped into her head half-way through a performance of Bruch’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra, came as a surprise to her: she had never felt the slightest twinge of romantic interest in the pale, earnest youths who had surrounded her at music college. She had already decided that she probably wouldn’t marry, it being too much of a distraction from music. But as she fought her way through the solo she thought about the serious, rumpled man who had taken her out to dinner in Les Halles the previous evening – a proper restaurant, not a café. He had told her he had never been so moved by music as he had when she had been busking outside Clignancourt station, and she realised that the mythical One, about whom her girlfriends wittered, might actually exist, and that he might appear at the strangest moment and in the most unexpected way.
There had been obstacles, of course – all the best love stories had them: a former wife, a ‘neurotic’ actress, from whom he had not yet been tidily divorced; her parents’ objected – she was, at twenty, too young, too impulsive – and so did her music teachers, who suspected she would throw away a perfectly good talent on domestic minutiae. Even the vicar had said that the twelve-year age difference and the cultural gap between the French and the English – he had hinted to her about the possibilities of mistresses and the importance of deodorant – might cause the marriage to fail.
But Laurent had met all of this with a Gallic shrug and his passion for the girl with the burnished tangle of long hair, while Isabel found, unlike many of her peers, that marriage did not lead to disappointment, cynicism or compromise. Laurent loved her. He loved her if she fell asleep into her breakfast because she had been up all night trying to perfect the last bars of some sonata; he loved her when, yet again, the meal she had prepared for him was both burned and bland. He loved her when they strolled arm in arm on Primrose Hill and she tried to sing to him pieces of music she loved, filling in with wild arm movements for bass drum and tuba. He loved her when she woke him up at three a.m., desperate to have him inside her, the taste of him on her lips. He bought her the Guarneri, leaving it on the pillow of the hotel where they had lost themselves one weekend, and laughing when she was shocked into breathlessness by it. He loved her.
She had been shocked to find herself pregnant after their honeymoon, not sure if she was ready for another person to break into their romantic idyll. But Laurent had confessed he had wanted children throughout his first marriage and, still overwhelmed by the passion she felt for him, she decided to give him this gift.
It had been an easy pregnancy and, stunned by the depth of love she felt for Kitty after she arrived, she had tried to devote herself solely to motherhood. It seemed no less than the baby deserved. But she had been hopeless at it, had never managed to establish the mysterious ‘routines’ that the health visitor went on about, was never quite on top of the piles of soiled vests or able to throw herself into the soft-play events that other mothers adapted to so easily. It was the only time that she and Laurent had fallen out. She had been tetchy and martyred, as if she had sacrificed too much of herself, and found herself blaming him for it.
‘You know, I would like my wife back now,’ he had said, with Parisian pomposity, one evening after she had railed at him about the unwashed dishes, her lack of freedom, her exhaustion, her disinterest in sex. She had thrown the baby monitor at his head. The next morning, confronted by the chip in the wall, she had known something had to change.
Laurent had held her. ‘I won’t think any less of you if you need your music. It was one of the things I loved you for in the first place.’ And after she had checked several times that he meant it, that he wouldn’t resent her for it, they had found Mary. Isabel had justified leaving her beautiful child by telling herself that everyone was happier.
Besides, Kitty had been such a good baby. If she had been unhappy with Mary, or unsuited to being with someone other than her mother, wouldn’t she have been less smiley? Less placid? There was a price to pay; one of the things she learned fastest about motherhood was that there always was. It was the way Kitty would run first to Mary if hurt, even if Isabel was in the room, and the way that Laurent could talk to the child knowledgeably about her friends, or discuss the special school assembly they had attended. It was, also, in the racking guilt she endured at being in a hotel room several hundred miles from a child she knew to be sick, or in the plaintive notes she found in her suitcase: ‘Mummy I love you I miss you when you are gone.’ She missed her family too, and ached with remorse. But Laurent and Mary afforded her the freedom to be herself, to pursue the thing she loved to do. And the older she grew, the more mothers she met, Isabel recognised that she was one of the lucky few who were not deprived by marriage and motherhood of their creativity. Or, more importantly, their passion.
It was not always easy. Laurent still loved her impulsiveness, indulged her wilder moments – the time she had taken the children out of school to go on a balloon ride, or when she threw away the plates because the colour irritated her and forgot to buy new ones – but he could be bad-tempered if he felt he was not foremost in her mind. She came to know the danger signs when he considered she was too immersed in her music. He would be irritable, announcing that he might appreciate his wife’s presence occasionally. He could tell when she was mentally rehearsing, even as she pretended to chat about what Kitty had done that day. She was wise enough always to give him what he needed, and ask what passed for pertinent questions about his job at the investment bank, even when she didn’t fully comprehend the answers. Laurent’s job was a mystery to her. She understood only that he earned enough to pay for everything, and occasionally to take them on holiday, when she would leave the violin behind and for two or three weeks devote herself to her family.
The greatest crisis had come when she had found herself pregnant with Thierry. Six years after Kitty’s birth, she had stared at the blue dot, which, despite the evidence, she had not expected to see, and panicked at what lay ahead. She couldn’t have a baby now: she had just secured her position as lead violinist in the City Symphonia; she had tours of Vienna and Florence lined up for the spring. She had proven herself ill-suited to full-time parenthood, even with a child as amenable as Kitty.
Several times she had considered not telling Laurent.
He had reacted, as she had suspected he would, with delight, then horror when she told him what she was considering. ‘But why?’ he demanded. ‘You have me and Mary to help. Kitty would love a brother or sister – she has begged us for one so many times.’
‘We agreed, Laurent,’ she said. ‘We agreed no more children. I couldn’t cope with two.’
‘You don’t have to cope with one,’ he had retorted, ‘and I have never minded. But you can’t deprive me – deprive us – of this child because it doesn’t fit in with your schedule.’ His face told her she must concede. He asked for so little.
She never confessed her dark thoughts as she passed each pregnancy milestone, as birth became an impending date in her diary. And he had been right: when Thierry arrived, his arms out thrust in protest against his delivery, perhaps against his unwanted nascence, she had loved him with the same instinctive passion as she loved Kitty. And felt a deep relief when, three months later, she had been able to return to work.
Isabel pulled her scarf round her neck, and strode down the path to the woods, the moisture-laden cow parsley and long grass catching at her boots. It was the first time she had been on her own for weeks. She had seen the children off to school two hours earlier, Thierry ducking away from her kiss, shuffling off with his uniform stiff on his shoulders, Kitty setting out with her customary determination.
She had looked forward to being alone again – God knew she had longed for some time to herself. But she missed them. Without the noise and bustle of the children, the house had seemed too sad, too overwhelming, and within an hour she had realised that if she didn’t do something, she would sink into melancholy. She could not face unpacking the remaining boxes, did not feel robust enough to start the Sisyphean exercise which would be cleaning the place, so she had gone for a walk. After all, there was nothing a walk couldn’t put right, Mary had told her often enough.
She had decided to cut through the woods to the village shop. The simple act of buying milk and something for supper would give her a focus. She would make a stew or roast a chicken for the children to come home to.
Somehow, it was less upsetting to think about Laurent when she was outside. A year on, she found that there were times now when she could think of him in relation to the things she had loved, rather than what she had lost. The sadness never went away, she had been told, but it would became easier to cope with.
She thrust her hands into her pockets, breathing in the tang of new growth, observing the shoots of bulbs beneath the trees or hinting at where a flowerbed might once have been. Perhaps I’ll make him a garden, she thought. But she knew it was unlikely: digging, forking and cutting with shears would be too hard on her hands. Gardening had long been on the unofficial list of things violinists couldn’t do.
She had reached the edge of the woods, and walked their length, the lake to her left, trying to remember where she had noticed a gap. She found it and ducked through. On the other side the ground was even less contained than it was around the house. Briefly, she turned back: its dark-red expanse and haphazard windows stared back at her without warmth or welcome. Not yet hers. Not yet a home.
You mustn’t think like that, she scolded herself. It will be our home if we make it so. They now had hot water, albeit at an exorbitant price, and a vague metallic-scented warmth in some rooms. The plumber had told her the radiators needed bleeding, but he had been so patronising that she hadn’t asked him what that meant. As there was a huge crack in the bath, they had to wash in a tin tub, a state of affairs Kitty protested about bitterly every morning.
She stopped to examine some oversized fungi fanning from a rotten tree-trunk then peered up at the overcast sky, visible in filigree patterns through the twigs and branches. The air was damp and she blew into her scarf, enjoying the warmth that bounced back on to her skin. The woodland smelled of moss, damp wood and healthy decay, so unlike the sinister damp of the house, where she often found herself wondering what might be rotting away around them.
A twig snapped and she stood very still, her city-bred mind fluttering with images of mad axemen. She held her breath and revolved slowly towards where the sound had come from.
Some twenty feet away, a huge stag was staring at her, its head lifted, its licheny antlers resembling the unclad branches behind it. Thin streams of vapour puffed from its nostrils, and it blinked several times.
Isabel was too entranced to be afraid. She stared at it, marvelling that such creatures could still exist in the wild, that in their built-up, overcrowded little country there was still room for such a beast to roam free. ‘Oh.’ Perhaps that small sound broke the spell, because the stag bounded into the open field and away.
Isabel watched it go. A snatch of music entered her head:
The Transformation of Acteon into a Stag
. The animal slowed and hesitated, its head swinging round as her mind filled with the fanfare of arpeggios that opened the symphony, a symbol of the young men who had come hunting, the gentle flute Adagio that spoke of murmuring streams and breezes.
Suddenly the silence was broken by a gunshot. The stag took off, stumbling across the claggy soil. Another shot rang out and Isabel, who had initially leaped behind a tree, now raced out into the open after the animal, trying to work out where the shooting was coming from.