Authors: Jojo Moyes
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Language Arts, #Composition & Creative Writing, #General
His dark mood had resolutely failed to lift, and she felt a mix of despair and irritation at his apparent determination to let the house colour their lives. ‘You shouldn’t let it bother you like this. Anything could still happen.’
‘Anything has happened,’ said Matt, sourly. ‘The old bugger left it to strangers. They’re not even from round here, for God’s sake.’
‘Matt, I’m as cross about it as you are. After all, I’m the one who put in all the work. But I’m not going to let it depress me for the rest of my days.’
‘He tricked us. He had us running around after him for years. He’s probably laughing at us from up there, or wherever he is. Just like old Pottisworth bloody laughed at Dad.’
‘Oh, not this again.’ The seductive urge evaporated. If he carried on much longer she’d be too cross to make love.
Matt didn’t seem to have heard. ‘He must have known for months what he was going to do – years. He and the new people probably cooked it up between them.’
‘He didn’t know. Nobody did. He was stupid enough not to write a will so they got it as his last surviving relatives. That’s all there is to it.’
‘He must have told them years ago. They’ve been sitting there, doing nothing, waiting for him to drop dead. Maybe he even told them about the idiots next door who were fetching and carrying for him. They’ll have been laughing.’
There was such a fine line between desire and anger. As if the nerve endings were primed for anything. ‘Do you know something?’ she said angrily. ‘He’s probably up there laughing at you, wasting your time in front of the window like a sulky child. If you’re that unhappy about it, why don’t we go round tomorrow and find out what they’re planning to do?’
‘I don’t want to see them,’ he said, mulishly.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. We’ll have to at some point. They’re our nearest neighbours.’
He said nothing.
Keep him close, Laura told herself. You cannot afford to give him an excuse. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘you might find they don’t even want it now they’ve seen all the work it needs. They sold the farmland – if you made them an offer . . . Well, my parents would lend us some more money.’ She threw back the duvet on his side. ‘Come on, love . . . We’ve got most of the land and the buildings at a good price. Let’s look on the bright side. That’s something, isn’t it?’
Matt put his glass down. He made his way heavily into the bathroom, pausing only to yell over his shoulder, ‘What bloody use is the land without the house?’
Isabel was freezing. She couldn’t remember ever having been so cold. Somehow the chill of the house had penetrated her bones so that no matter what she did, however many extra layers she put on, warmth eluded her. Finally, shivering in the darkness, she had got up and pulled on her day clothes over her pyjamas. Then she had laid her long wool coat over the bed, along with whatever she could find of the children’s clothes, and topped it with a candlewick bedspread they had found in a cupboard. The three had ended up in the one bed. Exhausted after unloading their things, and working out which rooms were habitable, Isabel had forgotten to put on the heater in the master bedroom so that when they’d headed upstairs shortly after ten, they were met not with blissful rest but draughts from unseen cavities, damp sheets and the intermittent drip of rainwater hitting the tin tub on the landing.
Piling in together had seemed the best way to keep warm. At least, that was what they had told each other. Isabel, with the sleeping figures of her children at either side of her, had known they needed basic maternal comfort, one of the few things she could capably offer just by existing. What have I done she asked herself? She listened to the panes rattle in the windows, the unfamiliar creaks and groans of the house, the noisy scurryings of unidentified creatures in the roof. Outside it was unnaturally quiet, without the reassuring punctuation of cars passing, or footsteps on the pavement. The expanse of water and the trees muffled any sound. The dark was oppressive, unrelieved by any neighbouring buildings or sodium light. It felt primeval, and she was glad that her children were close. Tenderly she stroked their faces, conscious of the extra liberty that their sleep afforded her. Then reached over Thierry’s head to check that her violin case was beside her.
‘What have I done?’ she whispered. Her voice sounded unnatural, disembodied. She tried to picture Laurent, to hear his words of reassurance, and when he refused to come she cursed herself for moving here, and wept.
Just as she had been told, in the morning things seemed better. She woke to find herself alone in the bed. The day was bright, with the kind of early-spring light that induces beauty even in the most jaded scenery, and outside sparrows squabbled noisily in the hedgerows, occasionally breaking off to fly above the window, then settling again. Downstairs, she could hear the radio, and a buzzing, which told her that Thierry was racing a remote-control vehicle around the echoing floors. Her first lucid thought was, This house is like us. It has been bereft, abandoned. Now it will look after us, and we will bring it back to life.
The idea propelled her out of bed, through the trials of a cold-water wash because neither she nor Kitty had mastered the antique and labyrinthine hot-water system, and back into the same clothes as she had worn that night and the previous day – she had been unable to locate which cardboard box contained her wardrobe. She walked slowly down the stairs, observing the countless problems of their new home, which she had failed to notice the previous evening: cracked plaster, rotting window frames, the occasional missing floorboard . . . On it went. One thing at a time, she told herself, when it threatened to overwhelm her. We are here, and we are together. That is what is important. A few bars of music had crept into her head: Dvorřák’s opening from the New World Symphony. It seemed appropriate, a good sign.
The music stopped when she reached the kitchen. ‘Kitty!’ she exclaimed.
Her daughter had been at work for some time. The shelves were cleared, and while the surfaces were still cracked and tired, they gleamed, free of dust and detritus. The floor was several shades lighter than it had been, and the garden was visible through translucent windows. In the sink, full of hot suds, a large pile of cooking implements was soaking, while a pan of water was coming to the boil on the electric stove. Kitty was putting what food they had on the shelves. The radio muttered on the work surface, and a mug of tea stood on the table. Isabel was filled with pleasure at the sight of the renewed room, yet appalled and guilty that her daughter had had to be responsible for it.
‘This room is for cold storage,’ Kitty said, pointing to a side door. ‘I thought we could keep the stuff that needs refrigerating there until we can get a power point put in for the fridge.’
‘Shouldn’t it just plug in?’
‘Of course, but there isn’t a socket – as I said. I’ve looked everywhere. Oh, and I’ve put a mousetrap down there. It won’t kill them, and once we’ve caught a few we have to take them for a drive.’
‘Unless Thierry wants to keep them as pets,’ Kitty offered.
Her brother looked up hopefully.
‘No,’ said Isabel.
‘I can’t get the grill to work, but there’s cereal and we have bread and butter. The two men who work in the village shop make the bread themselves. It’s quite good.’
‘Homemade bread. How lovely.’ A lump rose in Isabel’s throat. Laurent, you would be so proud of her, she thought.
‘There’s only jam to go on it, though.’
‘Jam is perfect,’ said Isabel. ‘Kitty, you’ve made that range look wonderful. Perhaps today we’ll be able to get it going. I think they’re meant to heat the whole house.’ The idea of warmth provoked a kind of hunger in her.
‘Thierry had a go at it earlier,’ said Kitty, ‘but he got through a whole box of matches and nothing. Oh, and the telephone’s on. We had a wrong number.’
Isabel surveyed her new kitchen. ‘A telephone! Kitty, you’re a wonder.’
‘It’s only a telephone. Don’t get too excited.’ Kitty shrank away from her mother’s embrace, but she was smiling.
Two hours later, the mood in the house was less optimistic. The boiler resolutely refused to start, leaving them with the prospect of another day without heating and hot water. The range would not light, and the yellowed instructions that they had found in the knife drawer were incomprehensible, as if the diagrams had been drawn for another system altogether. Thierry had gone out to fetch wood for a fire, but had laid the grate with damp logs, which smoked, filling the drawing room with soot. ‘Perhaps the chimney’s blocked.’ Kitty coughed – and a decomposing pigeon fell on to the wood. They all shrieked and Kitty burst into tears.
‘You should have checked the fireplace, stupid,’ she yelled at Thierry.
‘I think it was already dead,’ said Isabel.
‘You don’t know that. He might have killed it.’
Thierry stuck two fingers up at his sister.
‘How could you be so stupid as to use damp wood?’ she snapped. ‘And you’ve trodden mud all through the house.’
Thierry regarded his trainers, which were caked with claggy soil.
‘I don’t think it really—’ Isabel began.
‘You’d never have done that if Mary was here,’ Kitty interrupted.
Thierry stormed out, ignoring Isabel’s outstretched hand. She called after him, but was met with the slam of the front door. ‘Darling, did you have to be quite so mean?’ Isabel said.
If Mary was here
. . . The words smouldered inside her.
‘Oh, this place is bloody hopeless. Everything’s hopeless,’ said Kitty, and stamped past her mother to the kitchen. The cheerful home-maker had disappeared.
Isabel stood in the middle of the smoky room, and lifted her hands to her face. She had not had to deal with squabbles in her old life. Mary had had all sorts of ways by which she could divert them, or persuade them to behave nicely towards each other. Did they argue more now that it was just her? Or was it that she had been shielded from the bickering and name-calling of everyday life?
‘Thierry? Kitty?’ She stood out in the main hallway, calling them. She hadn’t a clue what she would say to them if they came.
Some time later, when she went back tentatively into the kitchen, she found Kitty hunched over the table, a magazine and a mug of tea in front of her. She looked up, guilt and defiance in her eyes. There was a soot mark on her cheek. ‘I didn’t mean to get at him,’ she said.
‘I know, lovey.’
‘He’s still upset about Dad and everything.’
‘We all are. Thierry has . . . his own way of showing it.’
‘It’s just this place is impossible, Mum. You’ve got to see it. There’s no water, no nothing. We can’t keep ourselves warm and clean. Thierry’s got to start at his new school on Monday – how are you going to wash his clothes?’
Isabel tried to look as if she’d already considered this. ‘We’ll go to the launderette. Just till we get the machine plumbed in.’
‘Launderette? Mum, did you
Isabel sat down heavily. ‘Well, I’ll just have to drive to the next town. There must be a launderette somewhere.’
‘People don’t go to launderettes any more. They have washing-machines.’
‘I’ll wash his things by hand, then, and dry them with a hairdryer.’
‘Can’t we go home?’ Kitty pleaded. ‘We can find the money somehow. I’ll take a year off school and work. I’m sure I can do something. We’ll manage.’
Isabel felt the claw of inadequacy.
‘I’ll be really, really helpful. And Thierry will. Even being poor at home would be better than this place. It’s awful. It’s – it’s like something a tramp would live in.’
‘I’m sorry, darling. It’s not possible. Maida Vale is sold. And the sooner you start to see this as our new home, the easier it’ll be for everyone. Look past the problems to the beauty of it all. Imagine what it could be like. Look,’ she said, her voice conciliatory, ‘everyone has teething troubles when they move in somewhere new. Tell you what – I’ll call a plumber and we’ll get the hot-water system sorted. And then we’ll ring a chimney sweep. Before you know it we’ll forget we were ever this miserable.’ It was a plan. ‘The phone’s working so I’ll do it now.’
With an encouraging smile, Isabel walked briskly out of the kitchen, unsure whether she was rushing to make a start or escaping the crushing disappointment in her daughter’s face.
* * *
Her mother’s quilted Oriental jacket glowed out of place in the sad, shabby house. Kitty put down her magazine, rested her head in her hands and checked strands of her hair for split ends. When that grew boring she wondered what else she could attack in the kitchen. Mum had gone over the top about how wonderful and practical and clever she was. She didn’t know that Kitty kept busy because it was the only thing that stopped her wanting to cry. While she was working, she could pretend this was an adventure. She could see the difference she had made to their surroundings. She could, in the words of the school counsellor, take control. But the moment she stopped, she was thinking about Dad, or about their house in London, or Mary, who had hugged them and wept when she left, as if they were her own children. And all of that made her want to shout at Mum, because she was the only person left whom she could shout at. Except they couldn’t shout at her because she was still grieving. And she was fragile, a little like a child herself, Mary had said. ‘You often find that with people who have a talent,’ she had told Kitty one evening. ‘They never have to grow up. All their energy goes towards doing the thing they love.’ Kitty had never been able to decide whether or not she had meant this as a criticism.
But Mary had been right, and when Kitty had been small she had resented the Guarneri so much that she had frequently hidden it, and watched with guilty fascination her mother tear through the house, white with anxiety, trying to find it. Their lives had been governed by that instrument. They had not been allowed to disturb Mum while she was practising, or have the television on too loud, or make Mum feel guilty about the times she had to go away on concert trips. She had not been allowed to mind that Mum never played outdoor games or helped her to make things with glue and ripped-up boxes because she had to protect her hands. Kitty’s most abiding memory of her childhood had been of sitting outside the study door, listening to her mother play, as if that might bring her closer.