Authors: Jojo Moyes
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Language Arts, #Composition & Creative Writing, #General
‘You don’t know how hard it is, when you’re all alone . . .’ he began, and Laura’s attention drifted. She knew his litany of woes by heart: that no one understood how hard it was to have none of your family left, to be bedridden and helpless, at the mercy of strangers . . . She had heard all the variations on that theme so many times she could have recited it herself.
‘. . . course I’ve only got you and Matt, a poor old man like me. Got no one to hand down my worldly goods to . . . You don’t know how it pains a man to be so alone.’ His voice diminished, and he was almost tearful.
She softened. ‘I’ve told you you’re not alone. Not as long as we’re next door.’
‘I’ll show you my gratitude when I’m gone. You know that, don’t you? That furniture in the barn – that’s yours after I’m gone.’
‘You don’t have to talk like that, Mr Pottisworth.’
‘That won’t be all, I’m a man of my word. And I’m mindful of all you’ve done for me these years . . .’ He peered at the tray. ‘That my rice pudding?’
‘It’s a nice apple crumble.’
The old man put down his knife and fork. ‘But it’s Tuesday.’
‘Well, I’ve made you apple crumble. I’d run out of pudding rice and I didn’t have a chance to get to the supermarket.’
‘I don’t like apple crumble.’
‘I bet you helped yourself to apples out of my orchard.’
Laura took a deep breath.
‘I bet you’re not half as good as you make out. I bet you’d lie for something you really wanted.’
Her voice emerged through gritted teeth. ‘I bought the apples from the supermarket.’
‘You said you never had time to get to the supermarket.’
‘I bought them three days ago.’
‘Don’t see why you couldn’t have got a bit of pudding rice at the same time. Don’t know what your old man must think of you. No doubt you have to keep him happy in other ways . . .’ He grinned salaciously, his gums briefly visible under wet lips, then got stuck into the chicken casserole.
Laura had finished the washing-up when he came in, and was stooped over the ironing-board furiously steaming and flattening the collars and cuffs of his shirts into compliance.
‘All right, love?’ Matt McCarthy bent to kiss her, noting the flushed cheeks, the steely set of her jaw.
‘No, I’m not bloody all right. I’ve had it.’
He removed his work jacket, pockets sagging with tape measures and tools, and threw it over the back of a chair. He was exhausted, and the thought of having to pacify Laura irritated him.
‘Mr P’s been peeking at her bits,’ said Anthony, with a smirk. Their son’s feet were resting on the coffee-table as he watched television and his father swept them off with one hand as he passed.
‘He did what?’ Matt’s tone hardened. ‘I’ll go and have a word with—’
She slammed the iron down. ‘Oh, sit down, for goodness’ sake. You know what he’s like. Anyway, it’s not that, it’s the way he has me running backwards and forwards like his personal servant. Every single day. I’ve had it this time. Really.’
When she had realised the old man would not let up, she had returned home and brought him back tinned rice pudding, muttering under her breath as she crossed the wood back to the big house, the bowl covered with a folded tea-towel.
‘It’s cold,’ he had said, dipping in a finger.
‘It’s not. It was heated only ten minutes ago.’
‘Well, Mr Pottisworth, it’s not easy getting food over from our house without it losing a little heat.’
His mouth had turned down in a
of disapproval. ‘Don’t want it now. Lost my appetite.’
His eyes flicked back to her, and perhaps he noticed the tic in her cheek. She was wondering, briefly, whether it was possible to kill someone with a kitchen tray and a dessert spoon. ‘Stick it down there. I might have it later.’ He folded thin arms across his chest. ‘When I’m desperate, like.’
‘Mum says she’s calling social services,’ said Anthony. ‘She reckons they can deal with him.’
Matt, about to settle on the sofa beside him, felt a stab of alarm. ‘Don’t be daft. They’ll put him in a home.’
‘So what? Someone else’ll have to put up with him and check his non-existent bed sores, wash his sheets and take him two meals a day. Good!’
Suddenly energised, Matt stood up. ‘He’s got no bloody money. They’ll get him to sign over his house to pay for it, won’t they? Use your loaf, woman.’
She faced him. She was a handsome woman, lean and agile in her late thirties, but now her face, flushed and cross, was that of a recalcitrant child. ‘I don’t care. I’m telling you, Matt, I’ve had enough.’
He stepped forward swiftly and put his arms round her. ‘Come on, love. He’s on his last legs.’
‘Nine years, Matt,’ she said stiffly into his chest. ‘Nine years I’ve been at his beck and call. When we moved in you said he wouldn’t last the year.’
‘And think of all those lovely acres, the walled garden, the stableyard . . . Think of the beautiful dining room you’ve planned. Think of us, a happy family, standing in the doorway . . .’ He let this vision float in front of her, re-establishing its roots in her imagination. ‘Look, the old fool’s bedridden. He’s falling apart at the seams. He’s not going to last much longer, is he? And who’s he got, apart from us?’ He kissed the top of her head. ‘The loans are in place, and I’ve even got Sven to draw up the plans. I’ll show you them later, if you want.’
‘There you are, Mum. Put like that, it doesn’t hurt to show him your nubbles every now and then, does it?’ Anthony chuckled, then yelped as a laundered T-shirt shot out and caught him sharply on his ear.
‘Just a bit longer,’ said Matt, his voice low and intimate. ‘Come on, love. Hang on in there, eh?’ He felt her soften and knew he had her.
He squeezed her waist, allowing his fingers to suggest some form of private compensation later that evening. He felt her answering squeeze and wished he had not made that diversion earlier to see the barmaid from the Long Whistle. You’d better die soon, you old bugger, he told Pottisworth silently. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up.
* * *
A short distance across the valley, in the master bedroom at the big house, the old man chortled at a comedy programme. As the credits rolled, he checked the time and tossed his newspaper to the end of the bed.
Outside an owl hooted and a distant fox barked, perhaps guarding its territory. Animals and humans were no different, he thought wryly, when it came to staking their claim. The fox, with his spraying and fighting, wasn’t too far from Laura McCarthy, with her twice-daily dinners and her fussing with clean sheets and whatnot. All marking their patch somehow.
He fancied a bit of chocolate. With an agility that might have surprised his neighbours, he climbed out of bed and padded across the floor to the cupboard where he kept his little treats, the sweets and tasties he paid Byron to fetch when he went to town. He opened the door and ferreted behind books and files until he found the smooth plastic wrapping. His fingers closed round what felt like a KitKat and he pulled it out, anticipating the delight of melted chocolate in his mouth, and wondering whether it was worth putting his teeth back in.
First he closed the cupboard door. No point in Laura knowing anything, he thought. Best if she thought him helpless. Women like her had to feel needed. He grinned to himself, thinking of the way her ears had reddened when he’d mentioned the tightness of her jeans. It was easy to wind her up. High point of his day. He’d start on her about riding horses tomorrow, about how she must do it for the thrill – that always got her riled.
He was still smirking as he walked across the floor and heard the theme tune to another of his favourite shows. He glanced up. Lost in the music, he did not see the bowl of rice pudding on the floor, congealing where he had left it earlier. His bony old foot landed in it heel first and he slid smoothly across the boards.
At least, this was what the coroner pieced together when the final hours of Samuel Pottisworth’s life were laid out painstakingly before the court. The thud his head made as it met the floor would have been loud enough to hear some two floors below. Still, as Matt McCarthy pointed out, so deep in the woods where all noise was deadened, things went unnoticed. It was a place where almost anything could happen.
Theresa glared at him.
Matt shifted. He fixed his eyes on hers. Her mascara had smudged, making her seem rather sluttish. Then again, Theresa was always a bit sluttish, even when she was dressed in her smartest clothes. It was one of the things he liked about her. ‘Say please.’
She closed her eyes, locked in some internal struggle. ‘Matt—’
‘Say. Please.’ He lifted himself on to his elbows so that no part of him was touching her, save, perhaps, his feet. ‘Go on,’ he said quietly. ‘You have to ask.’
‘Matt, I just—’
Theresa wiggled her hips upwards, in a desperate attempt to meet his, but he moved out of reach. ‘Say it.’
‘Oh, you—’ She gasped as he lowered his head and ran his lips along her neck, her collarbone, his body still raised tantalisingly above her. She was enjoyably easy to fire up, easier than most to keep at a peak. Her eyes closed, and she began to moan. He could taste the sweat, a cool film on her skin. She had been like this for almost three-quarters of an hour. ‘Matt . . .’
‘Say it.’ His lips went to her ear, and his voice became a low rumble as he smelled the perfume of her hair, the muskier scents between them. How easy it would be to let go, to allow himself to give in to the sensation. But it was sweeter to keep some control.
Theresa’s eyes half opened, and he saw that the fight had gone out of them. Her lips parted. ‘Please,’ she whispered. Then, grasping him, all pretence at decorum gone, ‘Oh –
please. Please. Please
Three-quarters of an hour
. Matt glanced at his wristwatch. Then, in a fluid movement, he pushed himself backwards off the bed. ‘Christ, is that the time already?’ He scanned the floor for his jeans. ‘Sorry, babe. Got to be somewhere.’
Theresa’s hair flopped over her face. ‘What? You can’t go!’
‘Where are my boots? I could have sworn I left them down here.’
She stared at him in disbelief, her skin still flushed. ‘Matt! You can’t leave me like this!’
‘Ah. There they are.’ Matt shoved on his work boots, then pecked her on the cheek. ‘Gotta go. You can’t imagine how rude it would be if I was late.’
‘Late? Late for what? Matt!’
He could have stretched it that extra two minutes. It was something few men seemed to understand. But sometimes there was more pleasure in knowing you could have something than actually having it. Matt grinned as he ran lightly down the stairs. He could hear her swearing all the way to the front door.
The funeral of Samuel Frederick Pottisworth took place in the village church on an afternoon so black with glowering rainclouds that night might have come early. He had been the last of the Pottisworths. And as a result, or possibly because he was not the most dearly beloved of men, few people came. The McCarthy family, Mr Pottisworth’s doctor, health visitor and solicitor sat in the front pews, spread out a little, perhaps to make the long wooden seats seem busier than they were.
A few rows back, mindful of his traditional position, Byron Firth, his dogs immobile at his feet, ignored the pointed glances and mutterings of the old women in the opposite pew. He was used to it. He had come to accept that there would be wary expressions and whispered asides whenever he had the apparent gall to appear in town, and he had learned long ago to turn to them a face of stone. Besides, he had more urgent matters to consider. As he left home he had overheard his sister on the telephone to her boyfriend, and he had a feeling that she was talking about moving herself and Lily on. He couldn’t afford the rent for their house alone, and there weren’t many people who were likely to want to share with him and the dogs. More importantly, with the old man gone, it looked like he was out of a job. The estate was paying his wages for now, but that wouldn’t last for ever. He flicked through the paper to see if any casual work was going.
A few had come just for the do. Mrs Linnet, the local cleaning lady, made it her business never to miss a good funeral. She could rank them, in terms of turnout, choice of hymns, quality of sausage rolls and joints of ham all the way back to 1955. She had brought with her two of the old women she ‘did for’; while they hadn’t actually known Mr Pottisworth, they might enjoy the outing, she had told the vicar. Especially as the McCarthys were likely to lay on a good spread, what with Mrs McCarthy knowing how to do things properly. Her kind always did.
And then, at the back, Asad and Henry were pressed close together as they pretended to read from the hymn book.
‘Look at them, all dressed up and sitting in the front row like they were family,’ said Henry, under his breath.
‘Whatever eases their sorrow,’ said Asad. A tall man, he had to stoop to ensure that they could both see the words. ‘She looks very nice today. I think that coat’s new.’ In bright red wool, cut in a military style, it glowed in the gloomy confines of the little church.
‘They must be expecting to come into some money. She was telling me yesterday he’s put down a deposit on one of those flash new four-wheel drives.’
‘She deserves it. All those years at the beck and call of that horrible man. I wouldn’t have done it.’ Asad shook his head. His features, betraying his Somalian heritage, were elegant and a little mournful. He managed in almost all circumstances to resemble a man of dignity, Henry said. Even in his Thomas the Tank Engine pyjamas.
horrible man are you talking about?’ muttered Henry.
The hymn ended. With a shuffle of bottoms on pews, and the soft thud of old hymn books hitting wood, the small congregation settled down for the last part of the service.
‘Samuel Pottisworth,’ said the vicar, ‘was . . . a man . . . who stayed true to himself throughout his life.’ He appeared to be stumbling. ‘He was one of the most . . .
members of our parish.’