Authors: Jojo Moyes
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Language Arts, #Composition & Creative Writing, #General
Thierry’s face had revealed nothing of what he was thinking.
‘There just isn’t the money, my loves,’ she had said, trying to bring them back to her. ‘We have to move.’
‘I still think you’re making a mistake,’ Fionnuala said now, dipping a piece of bread into olive oil, then wiping it round her empty plate. You’re still shaken and now is not the time to make life-altering decisions.’
Mary’s face had suggested she thought the same thing. But Isabel had to do this now. If she didn’t, she might crumple. The house offered her a pragmatic solution. It was the only possible way she had of salvaging something of her life, of ceasing to be haunted by the lack of his. In her more fanciful moments she had told herself that Laurent had sent the new house to her, that he had done it to atone for his debts. And children were adaptable, she told herself daily. Think of those whose parents were refugees, diplomats or in the armed forces. They moved all the time. Anyway, it might be easier for her two to be away from reminders of their old life. It might even be easier for her.
‘I understand the house is in need of modernisation,’ the solicitor had said.
She had gone to see him in person, unable to believe it might not be some trick. ‘My great-uncle was living in it so it can’t be that bad,’ she had replied.
‘I’m afraid I know nothing more than the details on the deeds,’ he had said, ‘but congratulations. I understand it’s one of the more important houses in the area.’ She was his only surviving relative, and she had been bequeathed a house through the invisible thread of intestacy.
‘It’s taken you for ever to make lead violin. And you’re bloody good,’ said Fionnuala. ‘Plus you’ll never meet anyone stuck out in the middle of nowhere.’
‘What makes you think I want to?’
‘Not yet, of course. But eventually— Look, I didn’t mean—’
‘No,’ said Isabel, firmly. ‘There was only Laurent for me. There could never be anyone who would . . .’ Her voice faded. Then, ‘It’s a new start,’ she told Fionnuala firmly. ‘This house is a new beginning.’
‘Well, I suppose that’s important,’ Fionnuala said. She put a hand on Isabel’s and squeezed. ‘Oh, bugger, I’m due back. Sorry, Isabel, but Burton’s conducting, and you know what a miserable git he is when you’re late.’
As Isabel reached for her purse, Fionnuala said, ‘No, no, my treat. I’m feeling flush because we’re doing a film score tomorrow. Four hours’ sitting around for forty minutes’ playing. I worked out the rate per note the other day – bloody marvellous.’ She thrust some money on top of the bill. You can do me a roast when I visit. Go shoot yourself a partridge. Astonish me with your new-found country skills.’ She reached across the table to hug her friend. Then pulled back and studied Isabel’s face. ‘When do you think you might play again?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Isabel. ‘When the children are . . . happy again. But it’s only a couple of hours by train. Not exactly the Outer Hebrides.’
‘Well, make sure you hurry. We miss you. I miss you. The man who has taken your place is hopeless. Leads with his head down and expects us to follow. We all gawp at him as if he’s showing us what he’s about to do by sign language.’
She threw her arms round Isabel again. ‘Oh, Isabel, I’m sure it’ll be all right, your new house and everything. Sorry if I was unsupportive earlier. I’m sure you’re doing the right thing.’
I am, Isabel thought, as her friend disappeared through the double doors, her violin case tucked under her arm.
Best for everyone.
Sometimes she even believed it.
Henry nudged Asad from behind the counter, pointing to his watch. Mrs Linnet had taken almost twenty-three minutes to buy a box of teabags. It was a new personal best. ‘Do you need any help, Mrs Linnet?’ he asked.
She broke off from her soliloquy. It had involved, in no particular order, CCTV, granite kitchen surfaces, her neighbour’s gammy leg and a woman she had once worked with whose infertility she ascribed to the wearing of tights in bed. ‘I don’t know about these hard-water teabags. Do you have to have hard water to use them? I know we’ve got limestone. It’s all round my kettle.’
‘Limestone? That must be a trial,’ said Asad.
‘Good for the upper arms, though,’ said Henry, trying not to laugh.
The dull thrum of rain on the roof increased in volume, and all three started as thunder rumbled overhead.
‘I was just about to make a cup – one for you too, Mrs Linnet, so you can judge our anti-limestone teabags for yourself.’ Henry winked at Asad and headed to the back of the shop. ‘If you’re not in too much of a hurry, that is.’
It had been a slow afternoon. The torrential rain and school half-term had conspired to keep all but the most desperate customers away. Other local shopkeepers grumbled about the trickling custom, at former regulars now lured away by supermarket offers and the promise of home delivery. But the proprietors of Suleyman and Ross, unencumbered by debt and cushioned by pensions built up during their years working in the City, viewed such afternoons as an opportunity for a more leisurely exchange with their customers. They had not taken over the shop with the aim of making money, but the low prices, unconventional stock choices and personal attention they offered had kept them assured of people’s loyalty. And, perhaps, protected them from the prejudices of those who might initially have been less welcoming to the men now known diplomatically – and against all evidence – as the Cousins.
The shop window had misted, obscuring the relentless sheets of rain. Asad turned on the radio and melodic jazz flowed round them. Mrs Linnet gave a yelp of pleasure and fluttered her fingers. ‘Ooh!’ she exclaimed. ‘I love a bit of Dizzy, but my Kenneth can’t abide modern jazz.’ She lowered her voice conspiratorially. ‘He finds it too . . . isotonic. But, then, you lot are made for it, aren’t you?’
Asad was too polite to let his silence stretch for more than an instant. ‘My lot?’
She nodded. ‘Dark people,’ she faltered. ‘You . . . you’ve got rhythm. It’s – you know – in the genetics.’
Asad considered this. ‘That would explain, Mrs Linnet, why on a day like this I’m barely able to contain myself.’
It was with visible relief that Deirdre Linnet turned to the door.
A familiar voice instructed dogs to stay, and Byron Firth brushed raindrops from his hair as he came in. ‘Good afternoon, Byron.’ Asad smiled.
‘I need a card,’ the newcomer told him.
‘They’re in that corner,’ Asad replied. ‘Was it for anyone in particular?’
‘Lily,’ he said quietly. ‘My niece. It’s her birthday.’ He seemed too large a presence for the shop, even though he was not as tall as Asad, and uncomfortable with himself, as if he were trying perpetually to make himself invisible. Perhaps that was why he worked in the woods, Asad thought. Permanently obscured from view.
‘Afternoon, Mr Firth,’ said Henry, bearing the tea into the shop and letting his eyes run over Byron’s dripping oilskins, his muddy boots. ‘I see you’ve been communing with Nature. And I believe we can announce that Nature, today, is the victor.’
‘Where are the handmade cards, Henry?’ Asad was scanning the shelves. ‘We did have some, didn’t we?’
‘We don’t stock the ones with ages any more,’ said Henry. ‘All the fours and fives would go and you’d be left with a ton of elevens.’
‘Ah. Here.’ Asad held out a pink card, decorated with sequins. ‘There was a woman who made these on the other side of town. That’s the last one and the envelope is a little bent so I can give you fifty pence off, if you would like it.’
‘Thanks.’ Byron handed over his money, and waited as Asad put the card into a brown-paper bag. With a nod to the shop’s proprietors, he tucked it inside his jacket and left. Through the steamy window it was just possible to see the elation of the dogs as their master stooped down to greet them.
Mrs Linnet had been studying labels with unusual intensity. ‘Is that man gone?’ she asked unnecessarily.
‘Mr Firth has left the building, yes,’ said Henry.
‘I don’t think you should be serving the likes of him. Gives me the willies, that man.’
‘You wish,’ murmured Henry.
‘I don’t believe Mr Firth’s distant past has any bearing on whether we should sell him a birthday card for his niece,’ said Asad. ‘He has always seemed pleasant to us, if a little uncommunicative. Mrs Linnet, as a good Christian woman, I’m sure you’re familiar with the notion of penitence, and forgiveness.’
‘He’s the thin edge of the wedge, as far as I’m concerned. Word will get out,’ she said mysteriously, tapping her nose. ‘We’ll become a magnet for all sorts of undesirables. It’ll be paediatricians next.’
Henry’s eyes widened. ‘Heaven forbid.’
The little bell heralded the opening of the shop door again. A girl came in, a teenager, no more than fifteen or sixteen. She was wet, but she wore no coat and wasn’t carrying an umbrella. She was somewhat crumpled, as if she had been on a long journey. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ she said, pushing her hair out of her eyes, ‘but you wouldn’t happen to know where . . .’ she consulted a piece of paper ‘. . . the Spanish House is, would you?’
There was a brief silence.
‘I would indeed, dear,’ said Mrs Linnet. ‘You’re not far at all.’ She had clearly forgotten her previous trials. ‘Might I ask who you’re hoping to find there?’
The girl looked blank.
‘Old Mr Pottisworth died recently,’ Mrs Linnet explained. ‘There’s nobody living there now. If you’re here for the funeral I’m afraid you’re too late.’
‘Oh, I know,’ said the girl. ‘We’re moving in.’
‘In where?’ Henry was in the doorway to the back room.
‘The Spanish House. This young lady’s moving into the Spanish House.’ Mrs Linnet could barely contain herself, given the portentousness of the news. She thrust out a hand. ‘In that case we’ll almost be neighbours, dear. I’m Deirdre Linnet . . .’ She peered out of the steamed-up window. ‘I take it you’re not here on your own?’
‘My mum’s outside in the car with my brother. Actually, I’d better go because the removal van’s waiting for us. Erm . . . where did you say it was?’
Asad gestured towards the road. ‘Turn left opposite the signs for the pig farm, right at the crossroads, and then follow the track all the way down until you get to the sign marked “
‘“Take Care,”’ Henry and Mrs Linnet added helpfully in unison.
‘We’ll be open till five,’ said Asad, ‘if you need anything. And go carefully on the track. It’s a bit . . . unfinished.’
The girl was scribbling on her bit of paper. ‘Left pig farm, right crossroads, follow track. Thanks,’ she said.
‘See you again,’ said Henry, handing a mug of tea to Mrs Linnet.
They watched as she disappeared into the road. Then, after a brief, barely decent delay, they scrambled to the window and wiped a viewing hole in the steam. Through it they watched the girl climb back into the passenger seat of a large, battered old Citroën. Behind it the removals van was almost blocking the lane, its windscreen wipers periodically revealing three burly men inside.
‘Well, how about that?’ said Henry. ‘Young people in the big house.’
‘She might be young,’ said Mrs Linnet, reprovingly, ‘but that’s no excuse for the state of those shoes.’
‘Shoes may be the least of her worries,’ said Henry. ‘I wonder what kind of welcome they’ll get from the neighbours.’
Kitty sat in silence as her mother attempted to negotiate her way down the dirt track. Every now and then she would check her rear-view mirror for the removals lorry swaying precariously behind them and mutter a plea under her breath. ‘Are you sure they said it was this way?’ she asked Kitty, for the fourth time. ‘I don’t remember this track.’
‘Right at the crossroads. I even wrote it down.’
The car jolted and crunched on to its front bumper as it came through another water-filled rut. Kitty heard the wheels spin briefly without purchase, the engine whining in protest, before they moved forward again. Around them the pine trees towered, blocking what remained of the afternoon light.
‘I can’t believe it’s down here. We’ll need a tractor to get out.’
Kitty was secretly glad that the track was so awful. Perhaps it might make her mother see sense about this stupid move. For weeks she had hung on to the vain hope that Isabel would admit it had been a mistake, and decide that somehow she could juggle their finances to keep them in their home. But no. She had made Kitty say goodbye to her school, to her friends, in the middle of the spring term, and head off to God only knew where. And it didn’t matter what Mum said about everyone keeping in touch – she knew that once she was no longer there, swapping texts and gossiping, she would no longer exist for them. Even if she went back to visit every couple of weeks she would only ever be on the periphery, missing all the in-jokes, behind on the moment’s trend.
The windscreen wipers swung back and forth with a delay and a slight creak, as if every move was an effort. A year ago today, I was happy, she thought. She had kept last year’s diary, and checked everything she had done so she knew this was true. Sometimes she tortured herself with it: ‘Dad picked me up from school. After dinner we played chess and I won.
was really good.’ Sometimes she wondered where she would be exactly a year on. It was hard to believe they might be back in London. Harder to believe they might be happy.
Thierry, in the back, raised his earphones briefly. ‘Almost there, T,’ she said.
, Dolores, you know you can do it.’
Kitty winced. It was so embarrassing that Mum called the car by name. Suddenly they drove out of the trees into a large clearing. ‘There’s a sign.’ Kitty pointed.
”’ read Isabel. ‘Mmm . . . “Take care.”’
‘That’s it,’ said Kitty, relief in her voice. ‘That’s what they said in the shop.’
Isabel peered through the streaming windscreen. There was an orderly two-storey flint house on the left, which looked nothing like the photograph. The car crawled forward, round a tree-lined bend, and then it was before them. A red-brick house, three storeys high, its walls half covered with ivy, the roof lined with incongruous battlements. Tall windows gave out over a front garden so overgrown that only the box hedge showed where it had once ended and the wilderness began. The house was a hotch-potch of designs, as if whoever had started it had got bored, or seen a picture of something else they liked and adapted it accordingly. A flint wall led to the battlements; Georgian windows nestled against Gothic arches.