Authors: Jojo Moyes
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Language Arts, #Composition & Creative Writing, #General
The Citroën swept into the drive and pulled up outside the front door. ‘Well,’ said Isabel, ‘this is it, kids.’
It looked cold and damp and unwelcoming to Kitty. She thought wistfully of their Maida Vale house, with its cosy rooms, its smells of cooking, spices and perfume, the comforting mumble of the television. It’s derelict, she almost said, but stopped herself. She didn’t want to hurt her mother’s feelings. ‘Doesn’t look very Spanish.’
‘If I remember right, it was meant to be Moorish. And there’s the lake. I didn’t remember it as big as that. Look!’ Isabel had tugged a large envelope out of the glove compartment. She rummaged around in it and took out a key with a sheaf of paper. Beside the car a huge magnolia had burst into early life, its pale flowers glowing like white lanterns in the dim light.
‘Now, according to the solicitor, we sold off sixty acres to pay the death duties, and twenty to put some money into our bank account. But that still leaves us seven acres to the left there . . .’ The sky was darkening so it was hard to make out much beyond the trees. ‘. . . and to the front of the house. So we’ve got the whole view, the woods and the lake. Imagine that! We own almost as much land as we can see.’
Great, thought Kitty. A muddy pond with a scary forest. Haven’t you seen any horror movies lately?
‘You know, if Granny was still alive it would have gone to her. He was her brother. Can you imagine her living in a house like this? After her tiny flat?’
Kitty thought she couldn’t see anyone living in a house like this.
‘That water. Oh . . . it’s magical. Daddy would have loved the lake – he could have gone fishing . . .’ Isabel trailed off.
‘Mum, he never went fishing in his whole life,’ Kitty said, gathering up the rubbish bag by her feet. ‘We’d better get out. The removals men are here.’
Thierry pointed towards the trees.
‘Good idea, darling. You have a scout round outside.’ Kitty could tell her mother was glad that Thierry had shown any interest at all. ‘What about you, lovey? Do you want to explore too?’
‘I’ll help you get organised,’ said Kitty. ‘Thierry, put your coat on, and don’t get lost in the woods.’ The slam of the car doors echoed round the little valley as they tramped across the wet gravel to the front door.
The smell hit them first, the cold, musty odour of long neglect; subtle hints of hidden mould, exposed damp and wet rot mingled with the fresher air of outside. A holdall slung over her shoulder, Kitty let the stench seep into her nostrils with a mixture of appalled fascination and disbelief.
This was worse than she could possibly have imagined. The hallway was floored in cracked lino, patches of which had worn away to reveal an indeterminate surface underneath. Through an open door she could make out a front room, whose walls were covered with a print that looked as if it dated from the Victorian era, and a rickety painted sideboard of the sort found in a 1950s kitchen. Two windows appeared to have been broken and boarded up, half blocking out the daylight. From the ceiling a wire hung without a fitting, let alone a bulb.
It didn’t look like a house one could reasonably live in. It didn’t look like a house that had ever been lived in. Now she’ll see, Kitty thought. She’ll have to take us home. There’s no way we can stay here.
But Isabel gestured to her daughter. ‘Let’s have a look upstairs,’ she said. ‘Then we’ll find the kitchen and make a cup of tea.’
The two upper floors were barely more reassuring. Several bedrooms appeared to have been shut off for years. The air held the chill of disuse, and in places the wallpaper was peeling away in strips. Only two seemed remotely habitable: the master bedroom, nicotine-yellow, which still contained a bed, a television and two cupboards of tobacco-scented clothes, and a smaller room beside it, which had been decorated in the 1970s, perhaps two or three decades more recently than everywhere else. The bathroom suite was cracked and limescaled, and brackish liquid sputtered from the taps. The landing creaked underfoot, and trails of droppings suggested the presence of mice.
to see, thought Kitty, as she and her mother confronted each new horror. She’s got to see that this is impossible. But Isabel apparently didn’t. Every now and then she would mutter something like ‘A few nice rugs . . .’ as if she was talking to herself.
Kitty counted perhaps three rusting radiators in the whole house. And on the top landing, a piece of the ceiling was missing, revealing a skeletal structure of struts and plaster through which a slow but constant drip made puddles in the bottom of a strategically placed tin bath.
But it was the kitchen that made Kitty want to weep. If a kitchen was supposedly the heart of a home, this one said the house was unwanted, unloved. It was a long, rectangular room with filthy windows along one side, set a few stone steps down from the ground floor. It was dark and infused with the smell of stale fat. An old range cooker stood beside the sink, its lids dulled, grey and sticky with some unidentified collusion of substances. To the other side of the room there was a free-standing electric stove, not quite as filthy but bearing the same signs of abandonment. There were a few 1950s-style units, but the shelves that lined the walls held a random assortment of cooking implements and packets of food, sprinkled with dust, mouse droppings and the occasional petrified corpse of a woodlouse.
‘This is lovely,’ said Isabel, running her fingers along the old pine table in the centre of the room. ‘We’ve never had a decent-sized kitchen table, have we, darling?’
Above them the removals men thumped and heaved some unidentified piece of furniture. Kitty stared at her mother as if she were mad. The house was like something out of a war zone, Kitty thought, yet her mother was wittering on about pine tables.
‘And look,’ Isabel said, from beside the sink, as a tap coughed into life. ‘The cold water’s running clear. I bet it tastes fabulous. Isn’t water meant to be better in the country? I’m sure I read that somewhere.’
Kitty was too upset to hear the faint note of hysteria in her voice.
‘Mrs Delancey?’ The largest of the removal men had joined them. ‘We’ve unloaded the first of the items into the front room, but it’s pretty damp. I thought I’d better check with you before we go any further.’
Isabel looked at him blankly. ‘Check what?’
The man stuck his hands into his pockets. ‘Well, it’s . . . it’s not in the best . . . I didn’t know whether you might want to put your stuff into storage. Stay somewhere else. Till you’re sorted out a bit.’
Kitty could have hugged him. Someone, finally, had seen sense.
‘The damp’s not too good for all those antiques.’
‘Oh, they’ve survived a few hundred years. They’ll cope with a bit of damp,’ said Isabel, dismissively. ‘There’s nothing here we can’t sort out. A few blow-heaters will warm the place up.’
The man glanced at Kitty. She detected a hint of pity in his eyes. ‘As you wish,’ he said.
Kitty imagined him and the others marvelling at the madwoman who would have her family living in a leaking wreck while she eulogised a pine table. She thought of their homes: snug, centrally heated, with well-stuffed sofas and huge plasma-screen televisions. ‘Well, where’s the kitchen stuff? I suppose we’d better start cleaning,’ she said.
‘Household cleaners. And food. I put two boxes by the front door before we left so we’d be ready.’
There was a short silence.
‘Those were for us?’
Slowly Kitty faced her.
‘Oh, hell – I thought you’d put them out as rubbish. I left them by the bins.’
What were they going to eat? Kitty wanted to yell. How would they get through today now? Did she ever think about anything but bloody
Why do I have to deal with this? Kitty turned away so that her mother couldn’t see how much she hated her at that moment. Her eyes had filled with tears of frustration, but she fought the urge to dab them away. She didn’t want her mother to see them. She wished she had the kind of mother who came prepared and bustled about getting things to work. Why couldn’t her mother be just the littlest bit practical? A rush of grief assailed her for her father, for Mary, who would have seen this house for what it was – a massive, ridiculous mistake – and told Isabel that there was simply no question. They would have to go home.
But now there were no grown-ups. Just her.
‘I’ll go and get some stuff from that shop,’ she said. ‘I’ll take the car.’
She half waited for her mother to protest that there was no way she would allow her to drive. Perhaps even to ask how she thought she could. But Isabel was lost in thought, and Kitty, one palm wiping her eyes now, left.
Isabel turned as her daughter stalked out of the room, making her displeasure plain in every footstep. She heard the door slam and the sound of the car ignition. Then she turned to the window and closed her eyes for a long time.
It had stopped raining, but the sky was still low and forbidding, as if it had not yet decided whether to offer a reprieve. It took Kitty almost twenty minutes to make her way to the top of the track; her father had only ever allowed her to drive short distances on holiday, in friends’ fields or up a private road to a beach. Now the car skidded and growled over the ruts as she hung on to the steering-wheel, praying that the wheels wouldn’t get stuck while she was alone in these horrible woods. She kept remembering the horror films she had seen, and saw herself running through the trees pursued by shadowy monsters.
Once she made the top of the lane, she abandoned the car and walked the last five minutes down the road into the village.
‘Hello again.’ The tall black man smiled as she opened the door. ‘Did you find it all right?’
‘Oh, we found it.’ Kitty couldn’t keep the resignation from her voice. She picked up a wire basket and made her way round the little shop, grateful for the warmth, and the smell of bread and fruit that suffused the air.
‘Not what you expected, perhaps?’
She didn’t know whether she was irritated by his enquiry, the assumption that he had known better, but there was something so gentle about him that she replied honestly. ‘It’s awful,’ she said miserably. ‘So awful. I can’t believe anyone was actually living there.’
He nodded sympathetically. ‘Things always look worse on days like this. You might find it’s better in a good light. Most of us are. Here.’ He took her basket from her. ‘Sit down. I’ll get Henry to make you a cup of tea.’
‘Oh, no, thanks.’ Suddenly she was picturing newspaper headlines of vanished girls and wondering about his motives. She knew nothing about these people. She wouldn’t have dreamed of accepting food or drink from any London shopkeeper. ‘I’d – I’d better—’
‘Hello again.’ The other man, Henry, emerged from the back of the shop. ‘How are you getting on? Anything we can help with? We can order stuff in, you know, if you can’t see it on the shelves. Anything. Waders, waterproofs . . . I’ve heard you might need them where you are.’ He spoke kindly and lowered his voice, even though there were only the three of them in the shop. ‘We’ve got some really good mousetraps. They don’t actually kill the little beggars, just trap them. You can take them for a drive a few miles down the road and let them out into the wild.’ He wrinkled his nose. ‘Like a little touring holiday for them, I like to think. Saga for rodents.’
Kitty looked up at the first man, who had started to fill her basket with candles and matches. She thought of the drive home down that track. She thought of her father’s hand reaching across to straighten the steering-wheel. Several times on the way up she’d thought she might burst into tears.
‘The first basket’s on us,’ said Henry. ‘A housewarming present, isn’t it, Asad? But if you accept it you agree to a legal obligation to come in and tell us everything at least three times a week . . .’ He winked.
His friend, Asad, looked over his shoulder. ‘And listen to Henry when he tells you what passes for news around here.’
‘You’re so cruel.’
Kitty sat down and raised a wan smile, possibly for the first time that day. ‘Actually, I’d love a cup of tea,’ she said.
‘It’s all very romantic,’ said Henry, as they were closing the shop. ‘Dead husband, poverty, violins . . . a bit more interesting than the last lot who moved into the village, the Allensons.’
‘Everyone needs loss adjusters, Henry.’
‘Oh, I know.’ Henry double-turned the key, then checked the handle to make sure he’d secured the door. ‘But you can’t help wondering what’ll happen to them down there. Especially with McCarthy’s nose so severely out of joint.’
‘You’re not suggesting . . .’
‘Oh, I don’t think he’d do anything, just that they might find themselves a bit isolated. It’s a big old house in the middle of nowhere.’
‘It makes me very glad for our cottage.’
‘And central heating.’
They peered up at the hilltop where a bowed line of scraggy pines trooped across the horizon, leading to the wood, into which Kitty had disappeared. Asad held out his arm, and Henry took it. As the two streetlamps of Little Barton flickered into life, they walked up the road to their home.
At certain points of the year, when the deciduous trees had lost their leaves and only the pines remained clad, it was just possible to see the Spanish House from the McCarthys’. Matt nursed a tumbler of whisky and gazed at the light that shone from one of the upper windows.
‘Come to bed.’
Laura admired her husband’s muscular back, the exquisite machinery of his shoulder muscles as he lifted the glass to his lips. Matt never aged; he still wore some of the clothes he had owned when they’d first got together. Occasionally, faced with her own stretchmarks, the gravitational descent of her bosom, she had resented it: Now she felt a faint flicker of anticipation, a brief sense of her own good luck. ‘Come on, you’ve been standing there for ages.’ She pulled the strap of her nightdress off one shoulder so that it fell seductively towards her breast.
It had been several weeks now. She always became a little anxious if it went that long. ‘Matt?’
‘What are they going to do with it?’ he was murmuring, almost to himself.