Authors: Jojo Moyes
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Language Arts, #Composition & Creative Writing, #General
His blue eyes were belligerent. ‘You going to tell me what to do now, are you, Theresa?’
Her face fell. ‘I don’t want you to get in any trouble. Drink-driving, I mean.’
He looked at her then as if he were seeing her for the first time. ‘Care about me, do you?’ he slurred.
She laid a hand surreptitiously over his and let her fingers trail across his knuckles. ‘You know I do. More than anything.’
He sat up straight, and glanced round the half-empty pub. ‘Meet me out the back,’ he said quietly. ‘I need . . . to talk to you.’ He saw trepidation and delight on her face. Then she tottered over to the landlord and muttered in his ear. ‘Five minutes,’ he heard the man say, as he sent a frown in Matt’s direction.
Then, the ground swaying beneath him, Matt was in the fresh air, heading for the car park.
She was in the yard, beside the crates, moths fluttering in the security light above her head. As he approached her, she threw her arms round his neck. ‘God, I’ve missed you,’ she said, kissing him. She tasted of breath-freshener, as if she had sprayed her mouth in the few seconds since they had been inside. ‘Tell me what you want to say. I thought you’d gone off me.’ She ran her hands inside his T-shirt. ‘I hate not seeing you. When you don’t come in, the nights just drag and drag.’
‘You care about me, then?’
Her chest pressed against him. She smelled of vanilla. ‘More than anything. Anyone,’ she breathed into his ear. Her fingers trailed round the back of his neck.
‘Hitch up your skirt,’ he said, thickly.
If he saw her falter, he chose to ignore it. His actions had become heavy and clumsy, pulling at her blouse, grabbing at her skirt and pressing her back against the crates.
‘Matt, I don’t know if I . . . Not here.’
But he took no notice. He hooked her leg round him, his lips buried in her neck, kissing her, fondling her breasts, her buttocks, her hair, until her protests died away. Then he was pushing into her roughly, losing himself in her, eyes shut, trying to recover the sensations he had felt in the darkness of that house,
hair falling round him. He was fucking
music in his ears. It was
It had to be her
. He lost himself in a dark place, his actions coarse and frenzied. He didn’t care who saw or who knew. He was dimly aware that Theresa’s gasps were becoming limp and passive, as if he were simply pushing air out of her. Then, with a muffled roar, he came, and collapsed against her. Empty. Ugly.
It was no good. It was worse than no good.
Matt let out a long breath and stepped back, steadying himself with one arm.
He straightened his jeans and saw that Theresa was eyeing him warily, pulling her top back together, her fingers struggling with the stretched fabric. ‘Sorry,’ he said, when he registered the missing buttons.
He had expected her to put her arms round his neck again, gaze adoringly into his eyes in that soppy way of hers. To tell him it didn’t matter. That whatever he did was fine by her. But she seemed bewildered and shrugged off his hand.
‘I’ve got to go in,’ she said, and hooking her other shoe back on to her foot, she ran back into the pub.
Laura was in bed when he got home. He went into the still house, noting the closed curtains, the landing light on upstairs. It was immaculate, welcoming, peaceful. It was all wrong. He wasn’t ready to go upstairs, not even sure where he would lie down when he did.
He kicked off his boots, flicked on the television, poured himself a tumbler of whisky and downed it. It didn’t make him feel any better so he drank another, his thoughts racing.
Finally, at a quarter past twelve, he picked up the telephone and dialled. ‘It’s me,’ he said.
Upstairs, Laura lay in the king-size bed, listening to her husband moving around heavily downstairs. He was plainly drunk. She had guessed when he didn’t return home at closing time that he would be. In a rare move, wondering whether she should make amends, she had rung the Long Whistle. A girl had answered. ‘Has Matt McCarthy been in this evening?’ she had said, and almost added, ‘It’s his wife.’ But she couldn’t bear to take on the role of rolling-pin-wielding spouse. ‘Curfew’, he had said. Like she was his gaoler.
There was a pause. She imagined this was a publican’s natural diplomacy.
‘Yes,’ the girl said. ‘But he’s not here now.’
Ten minutes later she had heard tyres on the gravel. Laura didn’t know whether to be relieved that he had simply been to the pub and returned, or disturbed that he had not come upstairs. She didn’t know what she would do if he did. She didn’t know much any more. She thought of Nicholas holding her hand, telling her that her husband was a fool. She had been embarrassed and had pulled away. She heard her voice revealing the most intimate secrets of her marriage to him, and felt disloyal. There had been intensity in the way Nicholas looked at her. All she had to do, she knew, was give him a signal. She had told him too much, but she hadn’t done anything else.
The piece of paper with his scribbled number was upstairs in her gardening trousers. She would throw it away, she told herself. Yet this didn’t make her marriage any easier, because Matt didn’t know about her self-restraint. He just shouted at her, went to the pub and came home drunk.
Laura sat up in bed, her head in her hands. It was a mess, and she had to do something about it. What had her friend said to her? Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? She would apologise. She would try to move things on.
She was about to open her bedroom door when she became aware that Matt was on the phone. It must be his mobile, as the phone by her bed had not clicked. Laura opened the door silently and went out on to the landing, her toes curling on the beige carpet.
‘It’s me.’ Matt’s voice floated up the stairs. ‘I’ve got to tell you something. Pick up the phone. I’ve realised something.’ He paused, and she strained to hear whether there was another side to the conversation. ‘You’ve got to pick up,’ he said. ‘Please pick up . . . Look, I’ve got to tell you how I feel. Everything we said after that night – it’s all been a stupid mistake. Because I know what you’re so upset about. And it’s because of Laura. You’re not like . . . You’re not one of those women. But I never saw you like that – you see? Not some bit on the side . . . We can be happy together, me and you, in the house. It’s you, Isabel. It’s you . . .’
Laura’s life fell away from her. She thought briefly that she might pass out.
‘So call me,’ came her husband’s voice, slurring heavily. ‘I’ll wait by the phone all night if I have to. But I know . . .’
Apparently he had fallen asleep. Above him, Laura McCarthy walked, as if in a trance, into her bedroom and shut the door. She took off her dressing-gown, folded it neatly at the end of her bed, went to the window and pulled back the curtain. She could just see the Spanish House outlined through the trees, a single light on in an upstairs window. Laura watched it, heard the faintest sound of music playing. A siren call, she observed, her whole self shot through with pain. A siren call.
It was not something she would have said aloud, but the woods around the Spanish House reminded Isabel of the sea, capable of subtle changes in mood and appearance, a source of threat, thrill or pleasure. Several months in, she had discovered that what she drew from them was a reflection of how she felt. At nights, when she was at her worst, they had been dark and terrifying, full of the unknown, of unseen malice. When her children were whooping and calling, running through the trees with the puppy barking alongside them, they were magical, a haven where innocence and wonder could still prevail. When she thought of Thierry calling, deep within them, she considered it a benign presence, a safe place, a barrier to protect them from the wilder world beyond.
Now, in the hour shortly after dawn, it was a bringer of peace, with birdsong drowning the frenzy in her head. Healing, soothing. A place where she could forget.
‘Mind that root.’ Beside her, Byron motioned towards a thick outgrowth, curling from the ground.
She adjusted the basket of mushrooms on her hip and slowed as she hoisted the gun to her shoulder. ‘I don’t understand. My aim is good now – I’ve done enough practice on the cans. I can hit a half brick at thirty feet. But every time I go out, they vanish before I’ve even raised the gun.’
Byron thought about it. ‘Do you make any noise? You could be alerting them more than you know.’
She trod round some nettles. ‘I don’t think so. I’m conscious of sound.’
‘And you’re going out at the right times? I mean, you’re seeing plenty of them around?’
‘Late at night, like you said. Or early in the morning. There’s no shortage of them, Byron. I see them everywhere.’
He held out an arm as they negotiated a ditch. Isabel took it briefly, although she no longer needed it. She had become sure-footed these last few months, her muscles hard and wiry from walking across the uneven ground, from hauling, painting and lifting. As someone who had never been aware of her body except as it related to her violin, she was enjoying this new sensation of fitness.
‘And you’re not wearing your bright blue coat,’ he said.
She grinned. ‘No. I am not wearing my bright blue coat.’
‘Which way is the breeze blowing?’ he said. ‘If you’re downwind of them they’ll scent you long before they see you. Doesn’t matter how careful you are.’
‘What’s this for?’ she asked, pointing at the thin green scarf he had made her tie round her neck.
‘A scrim,’ he said. ‘So the rabbit can’t see your face when you pull it up.’
She laughed. ‘So it doesn’t recognise me? Like a hangman’s hood?’
‘You might laugh, but rabbits are smart. No animal is better equipped to detect predators.’
Isabel followed him towards the edge of the woods. ‘I never thought of myself as a predator before,’ she said.
He hadn’t brought his dogs with him today. Too excitable so early in the morning, he had said when, still half asleep, she came out of the back door. They’d alert every creature within a five-mile radius. He must have been waiting for her, even though she had asked him to meet her shortly after five thirty.
It was the third time he had accompanied her, always early, before he had to start work with Matt. Just after dawn was the best part of the day, he had said. They had seen young deer, badgers, a vixen and her near-grown cubs. He had shown her the pheasants he was rearing for a local farmer, their astonishingly bright plumage at odds with the less vivid browns and greens of the English countryside, strutting Indian rajahs transported into a muted landscape. He had pulled at wood sorrel and hairy bittercress, picked hawthorn leaves from the hedgerows and told her how he had eaten them as a child on his way to school. He did not hold them to her lips, as Matt would have done, but placed them gently into her fingers. She tried not to look at his hands; she would not see him that way. She would not ruin something that had become precious.
He had told her he had trained as a teacher, and smiled at her surprise. ‘Didn’t think I was the type?’ he said.
‘No. I hate teaching the violin so much that I’m amazed anyone could
to do it.’ She glanced up at him. ‘But you’re good with children,’ she mused, ‘with Thierry. You would have been a good teacher.’
‘Yes.’ He paused. ‘Well, this suits me.’
He didn’t say why he had changed his mind about teaching, and she didn’t ask for an explanation. When you could live out here, free of the petty restrictions and frustrations of modern life, it was easy to guess why he might have chosen this. She sensed that Byron liked to be alone with her; his movements became freer, his conversation less stilted. Perhaps because he was less awkward, or because she had so few people to talk to, she had told him the truth about the house. ‘It’s difficult,’ she said, ‘because I like living here now. I find it hard to imagine being back in the city. But sometimes I fear that the house will ruin us.’
Byron seemed to bite back whatever he wanted to say. Hardly surprising, she thought. He works for Matt. Then, ‘It’s a big house,’ he said carefully.
‘It’s a money pit,’ she said. ‘It literally eats whatever I have. And I’d like Matt to finish. I know you work for him, Byron, but I find his presence . . . a little difficult. I’d be quite happy to sell up, move somewhere more manageable, but he’s knocked so much of it about – there isn’t a room he’s left intact. We still don’t have a working bathroom. And I can’t sell it as it is – not if I’m to make enough money to buy somewhere half decent.
‘The really tricky thing is that I can’t afford for him to continue. Even with all this,’ she waved at the mushrooms, ‘all our cost-cutting, there’s barely enough to pay him off for the work he has done.’ She thought of the hideous answer-phone message she had woken to the previous day. She had deleted it hurriedly, horrified by the idea that the children might have heard it.
We can be happy together,
he had said – as if he knew anything about her.
‘Anyway, I’m sure I’ll sort it out.’ She smiled, hoping he wouldn’t see the tears that pricked her eyes. ‘Perhaps I’ll learn some plumbing skills next and install my own bathroom.’
It was a hollow joke, and Byron didn’t laugh. They walked on, saying nothing. Isabel wondered if his silence meant she had embarrassed him. His jaw was tight.
‘What a gorgeous morning,’ she said eventually, conscious that it had been unfair to confide in him about his employer. ‘Sometimes I feel I could stay in the woods for ever.’
He nodded. ‘I often think,’ he said, ‘that when you’re out here at daybreak you can pretend you’re the only person in the world.’
The woods made her feel like that too, she decided. Sometimes, on mornings like this, she enjoyed being cut off from civilisation, relished the almost primeval satisfaction of returning with sustenance for her family. When you could harvest food from nothing, living here seemed much less daunting.
Byron held up an arm. ‘There,’ he said quietly.