Authors: Jojo Moyes
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Language Arts, #Composition & Creative Writing, #General
It was like a crow cawing, an ugly, invasive noise. At some point she had ceased to hear his words and simply heard jargon. Insurance. Payments. Financial decisions. All the things she felt least capable of. She thought she might be getting a headache.
She took a deep breath. ‘In that case, Mr Cartwright, what can I do?’
‘His investments? His savings? There must be something I can sell to pay off the mortgage.’ She was not sure she had ever used that word before. I never pretended to understand any of this, she railed at Laurent. It was meant to be your job.
‘I have to tell you, Mrs Delancey, that in the months before his death Mr Delancey spent heavily. He all but emptied several accounts. As well as using the proceeds of the life-insurance policy, any monies remaining will have to settle his credit-card debts and his – ah – back payments due on the alimony to his ex-wife. As you know, you as his spouse will have no inheritance tax to pay on his estate, but I suggest that in the meantime you reduce your outgoings to a minimum.’
‘What did he spend it on?’ said Kitty.
‘I’m afraid you’d have to go through his card statements to get any idea. Most of the cheque stubs are blank.’
Isabel tried to remember what they had done in those last months. But, as had happened in the first weeks after his death, time had blurred her memory. Her years with Laurent had become an amorphous, shifting bank of recollection. They had had a lovely life, she thought wistfully. Long holidays in the south of France, meals out in restaurants several times a week. She had never questioned where the money had come from.
‘Does that mean no school fees? No nanny?’
She had almost forgotten Kitty was there. Now she saw that her daughter had been taking notes.
Mr Cartwright turned to Kitty with relief, as if she was speaking his language. ‘That would be advisable, yes.’
‘And you’re basically saying we’re going to lose the house.’
‘I understand that your . . . Mrs Delancey no longer has a . . . regular income. You may find it easier to cope if you move to a cheaper area, reduce your household expenses.’
‘Leave this house?’ Isabel asked, stunned. ‘But it was Laurent’s. It’s where we brought up our children. He’s in every room. We can’t leave it.’
Kitty was wearing the determined expression she had adopted as a small child when she had hurt herself and was trying hard not to cry.
‘Kitty darling, go upstairs. Don’t worry. I’ll sort this out.’
Kitty hesitated only briefly, then left the room, her shoulders suspiciously fixed. Mr Cartwright watched her go, looking awkward, as if he were responsible for inflicting her pain.
Isabel waited until the door closed. ‘There must be something we can do,’ she said urgently. ‘You know about money. There must be something I can do to keep the children near their father. They loved him. They probably saw more of him than they did of me because I was away working so much. I can’t do this to them, Mr Cartwright.’
He had gone pink. He stared at the papers, and shuffled them a little.
‘Are you sure he didn’t have any assets in France?’ she asked.
‘I’m afraid he has only debts there. He appears to have stopped paying his ex-wife almost a year before his death. I’m pretty sure that what we have here is an accurate picture.’
She remembered Laurent complaining about the alimony. They’d had no children, he would grumble. He did not understand why
could not support herself.
‘Look, Mrs Delancey, I really can’t see any way of reorganising your debts. Even if you let the nanny go and take your children out of private school you’ll be left with significant mortgage repayments.’
‘I’ll sell something,’ she said. ‘Perhaps he had some good art. There might be a few first editions in the bookcase.’ Her eyes rested on the haphazard arrangements of tatty paperbacks and she conceded privately that this was unlikely. ‘I can’t put them through this. They’ve suffered enough as it is.’
‘You wouldn’t want to return to work?’
You have no idea, she thought. ‘I think for now the children need . . . one parent . . .’ she cleared her throat ‘. . . to be here. And what I earn with the orchestra has never been enough to cover our household expenses.’
Mr Cartwright murmured something to himself, flicking backwards and forwards between the pages. ‘There is one possibility,’ he said.
‘I knew you’d think of something,’ she said eagerly.
He ran his finger down his list. ‘I’m afraid there’s nothing financial you can cash in. But to the best of my information, the most valuable asset you hold outside your house is . . . your violin.’
He had reached for his calculator now, was nimbly totting up figures. ‘I understand it is a Guarneri? You have it insured for a six-figure sum. If you sell it for something like that amount, it won’t cover the school fees, but you should be able to keep your house.’ He held out the calculator to her. ‘I’m figuring with commission, but you should still be able to clear your mortage with a little over. It would be a wise course of action.’
‘Sell my violin?’
‘It’s a lot of money. At a time when you’re in need of it.’
After he had gone, Isabel went upstairs and lay on her bed. She stared at the ceiling, remembering all those nights she had felt Laurent’s weight on top of her, the evenings spent reading and chatting about nothing much, unaware that such domestic mundanity could be a luxury, the nights they had flanked the sleeping bodies of their newborn babies, gazing at them and at each other, in wonder.
She let her hand run over the silk coverlet. Such sensual pleasure seemed pointless now. The coverlet itself, its rich reds and ornate embroidery, was overtly sexual, as if it mocked her solitary state. She wrapped her arms round herself, trying to blot out the encroaching grief, the sense of amputation that hit her every time she was alone in the vast bed.
Through the wall, she could hear the muffled sound of the television, and imagined her son slumped in front of it, probably lost in a computer game. For a while she had hoped that one of her children might be interested in music but, like their father, they had little talent, and even less inclination. Perhaps it’s just as well, she observed. Perhaps there’s only room for one person to follow their dream in this family. Laurent spoiled me. He allowed me to be the lucky one.
She heard Mary arriving home, and a brief conversation between her and Kitty. Then, knowing she could no longer afford the indulgence of lying there, she got up, straightened the bedclothes, and went slowly downstairs. She found Kitty sitting cross-legged at the coffee-table. In front of her the Pile was divided into separate smaller heaps of brown or handwritten envelopes, subdivided into addressees.
‘Mary’s gone to the supermarket.’ Her daughter put down another envelope. ‘I thought we should probably open some of these.’
‘I’ll do it. You don’t have to help me, darling.’ Isabel stooped to stroke her daughter’s hair.
‘Easier if it’s both of us.’
There was no rancour in her voice, just the practicality that made Isabel feel a combination of gratitude and guilt. Laurent had called Kitty his ‘
’. Now, Isabel realised, at the tender age of fifteen, her daughter had naturally assumed that role.
‘Then I’ll make us some tea,’ she said.
Mary had been with them since Kitty was a baby. Sometimes Isabel thought the nanny knew her children better than she did. Mary’s air of calm efficiency had held them together these past few months, her stability stitching a thread of normality through what had become surreal. Isabel did not know how she would cope without her. The thought of cooking and ironing, changing bedlinen and the myriad other things Mary did every day filled her with despair.
I must be strong, she told herself. Worse things happen than this. In a year, perhaps, we will be laughing again.
When she returned with the two mugs, she kissed her daughter’s head, filled with gratitude for her presence. Kitty smiled vaguely, then flapped something at her. ‘We need to pay this quickly.’ She handed Isabel an overdue gas bill. ‘They’re threatening to cut us off. But it says at the bottom we can pay it by phone if you have a card.’
The credit-card statement Isabel had just opened informed her that she had failed to make the minimum payment for the past two months, and had added what she considered a grotesque sum to the already oversized total owing. Isabel shoved it to the bottom of the pile. There was no money. Mr Cartwright had said so. ‘I’ll sort it out,’ she assured her daughter. She would pay the bills. Find the money. It would be all right. What am I supposed to do? she asked herself. If I do one thing, I may break their hearts. If I do the other, I’ll certainly break my own.
‘I don’t recognise this one.’ Kitty threw a thick white envelope at her, with pointed, elegant handwriting on the front.
‘Put those to one side, darling. Probably one of the French relations who’s just heard.’
‘No, it’s addressed to Dad. And it’s marked “personal”.’
‘Put it with those, then, the typed ones. Anything that needs urgent attention throw at me. Anything else, leave it for now. I don’t have the energy today.’ She was so tired. She seemed to be tired all the time. She imagined the relief of sinking into the sofa’s exhausted cushions and closing her eyes.
‘We will be all right, Mum, won’t we?’
Isabel sprang upright. ‘Oh, we’ll be fine.’ She could sound convincing when she wanted to. She was forcing her facial muscles into an encouraging smile when she was arrested by the piece of paper in front of her, Laurent’s signature at the bottom. An image of him signing floated before her eyes, the dismissive inky flourish, the way that he rarely looked at the paper while he wrote. I will never see his hands again, she thought. Those squared fingers, the seashell-coloured nails. I will never feel them on me. Holding me. Nine months on, she knew these moments: loss hit her with no delicacy, no warning. There was nothing gentle about grief. It launched itself at you like a rogue wave on the seafront, flooding you, threatening to pull you under. How could those hands simply cease to exist?
‘Mum, you need to see this.’
It took all her reserves of strength to focus on Kitty. Her head felt strange, as if she couldn’t work her face into anything resembling neutrality.
‘Just put any bills to one side, lovey.’
, she was screaming inside,
how could you leave us?
‘I tell you what, why don’t we finish this tomorrow? I think . . . I need a glass of wine.’ She heard the tremor in her voice.
‘No. You’ve got to look at this.’ Kitty waved another letter in front of her.
More official things to sign, decide. How am I meant to make this choice? Why do we have to sacrifice everything? ‘Not now, Kitty.’ With an effort she kept her voice under control.
‘But look. Here.’ The typewritten letter was thrust into her hands. ‘I don’t know if this is some kind of joke but it says someone’s left you a house.’
‘Isn’t all this . . . a bit dramatic?’
Fionnuala was taking a break from rehearsals at the City Symphonia. They were sitting in the bistro where they had had hundreds of lunches, close enough to the auditorium to hear a double bass being tuned and retuned, a few experimental scales from an oboe. Alternately Isabel felt blissfully at home and an acute sense of loss, this time of her old life, her old self. A year ago I was an innocent, she thought, untouched by real pain. She was uncomfortably envious now of her friend, who was chatting away, unaware of the depth into which Isabel had sunk. It should be me sitting there, moaning about the conductor, with half my brain still stuck in the Adagio, she thought.
‘Don’t you think you’re in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater?’ Fionnuala sipped her wine. ‘God, that’s good.’
Isabel shook her head. ‘It’ll be better for the children. Lovely country house, good state schools, a small village. You know how awful London parks are – Mary always said she had to spend half an hour picking up bits of broken glass before they could play.’
‘I just wonder whether you shouldn’t go and see this place first, take your time.’
time, Fi. We don’t have any money. And, anyway, I’ve seen it, years ago when I was a child. I remember my parents taking me there for a garden party. It was a glorious place, as I remember.’ She had almost convinced herself.
‘But Norfolk? It’s not even the nice bit by the beach. And it’s such a huge step to take. You won’t know anyone there. You’ve never liked the country very much. You’re hardly green-welly material, are you?’ She lit a cigarette. ‘Please don’t take this the wrong way, but you can be a bit . . . impulsive, Isabel. You should come back to work and see if you can scrape by. I’m sure people would find you extra engagements. You’re lead violinist, for God’s sake. Or you could do some teaching.’
Isabel raised an eyebrow.
‘Okay, so maybe teaching was never your strong point. But it does seem an awfully extreme thing to do . . . What do the kids think?’
‘They’re fine,’ she said automatically.
‘But this is our house. This is
’s house,’ Kitty had said. ‘You told me you’d sort it out.’
Isabel wondered at her own composure. Laurent would forgive me, she told herself. He wouldn’t have asked me to part with my violin, which he gave me, not on top of everything else. ‘How come you get to make all the decisions? There’s three of us left in this family, you know.’ Kitty’s face was pink with perceived injustice. ‘Why can’t we sell the new house? It must be worth loads.’
‘Because . . . even after I’ve paid the inheritance tax on it there would be too many debts, okay? It’s worth a lot less than our home and, besides, anything we make from this house is ours, not the taxman’s.’ She softened her voice. ‘I don’t expect you to understand, Kitty, but your father . . . left us with no money. Less than no money. And we need to sell this house to survive. It won’t be that bad. You can still come back and see your friends. And the new house is big – they can come and stay with us. All school holidays, if you want.’