Authors: Jojo Moyes
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Language Arts, #Composition & Creative Writing, #General
‘And he wasn’t beyond making a pass at my wife,’ said Matt. ‘Filthy old bugger. Mind yourself on these planks, girls.’
‘Matt,’ said Laura, as she passed him, ‘don’t.’
‘Oh, come on, love. You’re not going to tell everyone he was an angel.’ He winked at Mike Todd, who was holding his glass aloft as if afraid he might spill his wine. ‘Everyone here knows what he was like, don’t they, Mike?’
‘I don’t think it’s right,’ she said.
‘To speak ill of the dead? I’m only telling the truth. Aren’t we, everyone? It’s said with affection, right?’
‘Still . . .’
The house loomed before them, illuminated by moonlight that bounced palely from the still water of the lake. In the blue glow, the building seemed spectral, less solid than in daylight, the mist rising from the earth so that it could almost have been floating. The red-brick slab of its eastern wall gave way to Gothic windows, the later additions to north and south dressed in a more traditional Norfolk flint. Above the huge bay window that marked the master bedroom, two sets of battlements looked out over the lake. It was grand but unlovely, a strange, contrary building, not unlike its previous owner. But it had potential. Laura found herself suppressing an involuntary shiver. The Big House. The one she would re-create, where she would spend the rest of her life. The one that would show her parents, everyone, she had been right to marry Matt.
‘Look at it,’ came Matt’s voice. ‘He would have let it fall to bits around him.’
‘I remember when his parents had it,’ said Mrs Linnet, who was clutching Asad’s arm. ‘Beautiful, they kept it. There were stone peacocks here and here, and boats on the lake, and all along that border they had the most beautiful roses. Proper scented ones, not like you get nowadays.’
‘It must have been quite something,’ said Asad.
‘Beautiful, this house could be again, in the right hands.’
‘I wouldn’t like it. Not out here in the middle of all these woods.’
Laura looked at her husband, who was standing a little apart from the group, lost in thought, head tilted back. There was something rested about his face, she thought. As if long-held tension was melting away. She wondered briefly whether that expression was replicated on her own features, and decided it probably wasn’t.
‘Actually, Matt.’ It was Derek Wendell, the solicitor, his voice quiet. ‘Can I have a quick word?’
‘Did I tell you about the time he was going to sell the thirty-acre field? The one by the old barn?’ Mike Todd was beside him, his voice booming theatrically in the dark. ‘Got offered a good price, well above what he’d asked. Everything was set to go through and then he met the buyer at the solicitor’s office.’ He paused for dramatic effect. ‘Di
‘Go on, Mike.’ Laura was giggly. She had been drinking all afternoon, which was rare for her. Usually she limited herself – it was no fun to wake up with a hangover.
‘He discovered the buyer came from France. Or, at least, his parents had – poor man had lived here twenty years. And that was it. “I’m not selling my land to a bloody appeaser. No Frog’s getting his clammy hands on my ancestral home . . .” The irony was that no Pottisworth had ever served in the bloody war. They all managed to get themselves invalided out, or into the ruddy Payroll Corps.’
‘I don’t think I ever heard him speak well of anyone,’ said Matt, staring up at the house.
‘Mrs McCarthy, surely. After everything she did for him . . .’
‘Nope,’ said Matt. ‘Not even Laura. Not to my knowledge.’ He had sat down on one of the long, low walls that surrounded the house, broken by steps that led into what had been the driveway. He sat with an air of relaxed ownership, as someone would if they were about to have their picture taken.
‘Matt.’ Derek Wendell was at his shoulder now. ‘I really need a word.’
Laura noticed the look on his face before Matt did. Even in her hazy, drunken state, she recognised something in it that sobered her.
‘The will, is it? Can’t we talk details later?’ Matt clapped him on the back. ‘Do you never go off duty, Derek?’
‘I haven’t been in this house for thirty years,’ Mrs Linnet announced, from behind them. ‘Last time was the old man’s funeral. Two black horses they had, pulling the coffin – I went to stroke one and it bit me.’ She held out her hand, squinting at it. ‘Look, I’ve still got the scar.’
People were talking over each other now, more interested in telling than listening.
‘I remember that funeral,’ said Matt. ‘I was standing at the top of the drive with my old man. He wouldn’t go inside the gates, just stood there as the cortège went past. I remember he wept, even after everything that had gone on. Ten years after they’d chucked him out, left him with no home, nothing, he still wept for that old man.’
Laura was standing still, just watching. Derek, too close to Matt, trying to get his attention, turned briefly to her and she suddenly knew what he was trying to tell her husband. The world fell away from her, like the segments of an orange. She blinked hard, trying to convince herself that what she had seen was the result of poor light or her own tipsiness. But then Derek leaned in and whispered something in Matt’s ear, and from her husband’s hardened features, and the ‘What?
’ that broke into the scented evening, she knew that the old man had indeed remained true to himself, as the vicar had said. Even in death.
It was difficult to play the violin when she was crying. The angle of her head meant that the tears pooled briefly in the small hollow between tear duct and nose, then trickled down her face or, worse, on to the violin, where they had to be swiftly removed if they were not to stain or even warp the wood.
Isabel broke off to grab the large white handkerchief and wipe the tiny droplets from the burnished surface. Crying and playing. One should separate one from the other. But it was only when she was playing that she could express how she felt. It was the only time she didn’t have to put on a brave face, be Mummy, daughter-in-law, efficient employer or, God forbid, ‘stoic young widow’.
‘Mum.’ Kitty had been calling her for several minutes. She had tried to block out her daughter’s voice, unwilling to relinquish the last few bars of Mahler’s Fifth, not quite ready to go down and rejoin real life. But Kitty’s summons was gathering in strength and urgency. ‘Mum!’
She couldn’t play properly if she couldn’t concentrate. She took the violin from under her chin, wiped her eyes, and shouted down, trying to inject lightness into her voice, ‘What is it?’
‘Mr Cartwright’s here.’
Cartwright . . . Cartwright . . . She laid her instrument in its case, then opened the door of the attic room and went slowly downstairs. She didn’t remember the name, although it was possible she knew him. She had never had to know so many people’s names before Laurent died. ‘Just coming,’ she said.
Cartwright. A businesslike name. Not one of the neighbours. Not one of Laurent’s friends, who still called occasionally, shocked if they had only just heard and who had to be comforted, there on her sofa, as if she were the one who now had to take care of everyone’s feelings.
Not one of her friends, few of whom had kept in touch since she had had to leave the orchestra.
Cartwright. She peered into the living room and saw, with vague relief, that the man on the sofa in a dark grey suit and a tie was familiar. He had been at the funeral. She tried to gather her thoughts, and glanced to the kitchen, where Kitty was making tea. ‘Can’t Mary do that?’
‘It’s her afternoon off. I told you earlier.’
‘Oh.’ She was always forgetting things now. Her daughter carried the tea to Mr Cartwright, who was struggling to climb out of the low sofa and stand, right hand extended. In his polished shoes, with his stiff demeanour, he was out of place amid the room’s gentle chaos. She saw it suddenly through a visitor’s eyes. There were piles of books and magazines on the tables. On the arm of the sofa, someone had left a Hallowe’en mask and a tumbled heap of washing. A pair of her knickers was working its way down the back towards the cushions. Thierry was sitting watching television oblivious to the mess around him.
‘Mrs Delancey, I hope I haven’t come at an inconvenient time . . .’
‘No, no.’ She waved in a conciliatory manner. ‘How lovely to see you. I was just . . . upstairs.’
Kitty sat in the red damask chair and curled her legs under her. The seat fabric had become so frayed that the grey stuffing was leaking out – and she watched Kitty attempt to push some back in surreptitiously.
‘Mr Cartwright has come to talk about money,’ she said. ‘Your tea’s on the side, Mum.’
‘Of course. Thank you.’ Accountant? Financial adviser? Solicitor? Laurent had always dealt with such people. ‘Is there something you need me to sign?’
Mr Cartwright leaned forward, which wasn’t easy because his rear was a good six inches lower than his knees. ‘Not quite. In fact . . . it might be a good idea to have this conversation . . . somewhere else.’ He glanced meaningfully at Thierry, then at Kitty.
Thierry turned off the television resentfully.
‘You can watch the set in Mary’s room, darling. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.’
‘The remote control’s broken,’ said Kitty.
‘Well . . . perhaps . . .’
But Thierry had gone.
‘I’ll stay here,’ said Kitty, calmly. ‘Sometimes it’s easier to remember stuff if there are two of you.’
‘My daughter is . . . very efficient for her age.’
Mr Cartwright seemed uncomfortable, but evidently realised he was stuck with this arrangement. ‘I have tried to reach you for several weeks now,’ he began. ‘I thought you really should have a full picture of your financial situation now that the . . . ah . . . dust has settled.’ He blushed at his choice of words. His briefcase was on his knees and, having flipped open its lid in a way that suggested this might be the most pleasurable moment of his working day, he pulled out sheaves of paper, lining them up in neat rectangles on the coffee-table. He ceased when he got to the Pile.
‘Mum doesn’t do post,’ said Kitty, in explanation. ‘We’re waiting until the heap becomes big enough to do her an injury.’
sort out the post, Kitty. I’ve just . . . got a little behind.’ Isabel smiled awkwardly at Mr Cartwright, who was unable to conceal his horror at the sight of the teetering pile of unopened envelopes.
‘That’s probably why we didn’t reply to you,’ Kitty added.
‘It might be . . . wise to take a look at them,’ he said carefully. ‘There may be bills.’
‘Oh, it’s all right,’ said Kitty. ‘I open anything red, fill in the cheques and Mum signs them.’
Isabel registered his disapproval. She had noticed it on other mothers’ faces when she said that the nanny did the cooking, or that she didn’t know her children’s schoolfriends’ names. It had been apparent on the faces of those who had visited since Laurent’s death when they took in the shambles of the house. Occasionally she had even spotted it in Mary when Isabel had lain in bed and howled instead of helping to get the children to school. That stage, the one at which she had felt half demented, had seen him in passing faces, raged at God for taking him, had passed. But the path out of grief wasn’t any easier.
Mr Cartwright took up a pen and closed his briefcase. ‘What I have to say will not come as good news.’
Isabel half wanted to laugh. My husband is dead, she thought. My son is still in shock and won’t speak. My daughter has aged twenty years in nine months and refuses to admit that anything is wrong at all. I have had to give up the one thing I love doing, the one thing I swore I would never do, and you think you can give me bad news?
‘Now that some time has passed and the – ah – legal side of things has been sorted out, I have had a comprehensive look at Laurent’s financial affairs, and it seems he was not quite as . . . solid as he may have appeared.’
‘I’m afraid he has not left you as well provided for as you might have expected.’
That’s not a disaster, she wanted to say. Money has never been important to me. ‘But we have the house. And his life insurance. It can’t be that bad.’
Mr Cartwright was reviewing the piece of paper in his hand. ‘Here is a summary,’ he said. ‘On the top left are his assets, and on the other side a list of what Mr Delancey owed when he . . . passed over.’
‘He died,’ she corrected. ‘I hate that expression,’ she muttered, catching Kitty’s reproachful eye. ‘He – he died. My husband died.’ There was no dressing it up. It should sound as bald, as hard, as it was.
Mr Cartwright sat in silence as Isabel swallowed the lump in her throat.
Blushing, she picked up the piece of paper. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said distractedly. ‘I don’t really do figures. Could you possibly explain them to me?’
‘Put simply, Mrs Delancey, your husband had borrowed heavily against this house to maintain your lifestyle. He was relying on the value of your property continuing to increase. Now that may happen, in which case your situation might not be so bad. But the biggest problem is that when he extended the mortgage, he did not increase his life insurance to cover the new sum. In fact, he cashed in one of his policies.’
‘The new job,’ she said vaguely. ‘He said the new job would bring in big bonuses. I didn’t really understand . . . I never really understood what he did.’ She smiled apologetically. ‘Something about . . . emerging markets?’
He was looking at her as if everything should be self-explanatory.
‘I don’t . . . Could you tell me what it all means for us?’
‘The house is not paid for. The level of life-insurance payout means that less than half of the sum owing will be covered, leaving significant mortgage repayments outstanding, repayments that I’m not sure you’ll be able to meet. Until now, the remaining money in your joint and savings accounts has been covering them, but I’m afraid there is little left. You will receive a proportion of your husband’s pension, and perhaps there are some benefits, but you must find some other way of meeting your remaining mortgage payments if you want to keep your house.’