Authors: Jojo Moyes
Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Language Arts, #Composition & Creative Writing, #General
She knew she had almost been an only child because Mum wasn’t sure that she could balance the needs of two children with her musical career. And even after Thierry arrived, unexpectedly, she had still never been at school evenings or netball matches, because she had had to play. They would understand when they were older, her father had said, if they were lucky enough to find the one thing they were really good at.
Mary had been to so many events with him that most people assumed they were married.
Kitty felt a surge of childish resentment. I hate this house, she thought. I hate it because Dad and Mary aren’t here, and because I can’t even be myself.
The plumber had promised to come the following morning, but had warned that his attendance would be charged as an emergency call-out. He had sighed heavily when she told him she wasn’t sure what the problem was and explained that the house had not been occupied for some time. ‘No guarantees,’ he kept saying, ‘not with them old systems. It might have seized up.’ She had been apologetic, then furious with herself for it.
The chimney sweep had been friendlier, had whistled when she told him the address and remarked that the last time he had swept those chimneys had been almost fifteen years ago. ‘The old man was a tightwad,’ he said. ‘Lived in one room for years, far as I know. Let the rest of the house fall down round him.’
It was a little . . . tired, Isabel had agreed. She thanked him profusely when he said that he would come round later that afternoon. ‘Bring you a bag or two of logs, if you like. I do a lot of the houses round here.’
The prospect of a fire had lifted Isabel’s spirits. She put down the telephone, wondering at how small and sparse her pieces of furniture seemed in this house, even with so many rooms closed. A fire will improve everybody’s mood, she thought.
She tried to think of ways to cheer the melancholy drawing room. The fire would help, of course, but they should have one room that felt homely, even if it involved leaving others empty. The southern end of the house seemed marginally less damp and uninhabitable. She began to fetch things, a rug, two pictures, a small table and a vase, and arranged them in the room, trying to make it warmer and livelier. The rugs did not cover the floorboards, but they broke up their dusty expanse, and covered the worst of the knotholes. The pictures obscured chips in the walls, and a strategically placed armchair put paid to the view of rising damp above the skirting-board. She shook the curtains and coughed at the dust that billowed out. Then she assessed her efforts. It was not quite Maida Vale, but it was a start.
Outside, Thierry, a small, disconsolate figure, his green jumper bright against the grey and brown of the landscape, was walking out of the trees by the lake. He held a large stick with which he swung at plants periodically. His head was down, his breath emerging in small, cloudy bursts. As she watched he rubbed his sleeve several times against his eyes.
Her small victories felt suddenly cheap and unimportant. She remembered something a cellist had told her when she was pregnant with Kitty: as long as one of your children was unhappy, you couldn’t be happy. I must try harder, Isabel told herself. I have to make this into a home, a place that is not dominated by what is missing. I am all they’ve got.
The sweep, Mr Granger, came when he had said he would, sucked his teeth only briefly and swept three chimneys, with the minimum fuss and mess, considering the amount of soot he brought down. He told Thierry with a wink that chimneys were ‘like nostrils. They need a regular clean-out,’ emphasising this with a blow into his handkerchief and a display of the blackened results – a demonstration that made Kitty wince and Thierry smile.
Later that afternoon, as the premature evening crept in and the children were engaged with Mr Granger, who was teaching them how to lay what he called ‘a proper fire’, Isabel wandered upstairs. The previous evening she had noticed that a door led from the top landing out on to the flat roof that ended in the battlements and had brought with her the vast ring of keys that hung downstairs in the kitchen to open it.
She had planned to step out there just for a few moments, to enjoy the view from her elevated position, the iced blue and warm peach of the early-spring sunset reflected in the lake. The outside of the house was less sad and more compelling than the interior.
She had been out there for only a few seconds when she realised what she needed. She slipped back inside, took her violin from its case, and brought it outside. Standing close to the battlements, she tucked it under her chin, not knowing until she started what she was going to play. She found herself in the first movement of Elgar’s Concerto in B Minor.
Once she had hated this piece, had found it overly sentimental. They had agreed at the Symphonia that it was hopelessly long and old-fashioned, but now, unexpectedly, it spoke to her, demanded to be played. And she lost herself in it. It is almost exactly a year since you died, she told Laurent. I will come up here and play for you. A requiem to the things we have both lost.
The notes took on a life of their own, became deep and impassioned, and she heard them echo across the chilly countryside, carried on the soft, still air, on the wings of the waterfowl. She made few errors, and did not care about those she did. She needed no score, no instruction: the concerto, which she had not played for years, reached her fingers by some strange osmosis. By the time she was playing the devastating third movement, she was lost, oblivious to everything but her feelings, vibrating down the bow and into the strings.
. She heard his voice in the melodic themes, lost herself in the sheer technical challenge.
. This time there were no tears, all emotion contained in her, the grief, anger and frustration translated into sound, redeemed and comforted by it.
The sky grew darker, the air cooler. The notes lifted skyward, spread out and flew, like birds, like hopes, like memories.
, she told him.
. . . Until speech and even thought itself became drowned out by sound.
Asad lugged the crate of fruit through the door, and Henry hurried out from behind the till to hold it back for him. ‘Mrs Linnet was on the phone,’ he said. ‘She told me that the new woman has her music on full blast and that you can hear it half-way down the valley. She said it drowned out her
on the radio, sounded like a bagful of strangled cats, and that if she was going to do it every night she’d report her to the Elemental Health.’ He grinned. ‘Not a happy bunny.’
Asad put the crate down by the fruit shelf. ‘It’s not a recording. She stopped twice. I was listening while they unloaded the fruit. If you step outside you’ll hear it.’
‘She still going?’
Asad motioned him forward. ‘You can just hear it.’
The two men went outside. The sky was darkening, and the village street was empty but for the two of them. The windows of the cottages that lined the sides of the road cast out long rectangles of light. Here and there curtains shimmied as they were drawn.
Henry shook his head. ‘Nope,’ he said.
‘Wait,’ said Asad. ‘Perhaps the wind’s changed direction. There . . .’ His eyes were fixed on Henry’s. ‘You hear?’
Henry stood very still, as if that were a requirement for improved hearing. Then slowly, as the distant strains of a violin became audible, a smile spread across his face. The two men enjoyed the pleasure to be gleaned from the unexpected in a place where it was rare.
A small smile played on Asad’s lips, as he was transported, perhaps, to some place far away from the chill of an English village.
‘Do you think she knows the theme tune from
?’ Henry said, when the music died away. ‘I’d love it if she’d play it to me. We could ask if she does parties.’
The bin bags huddled under an ash tree, incongruous against the just-budding greenery, the dewy freshness of the life around them. Spying them half-way down the dirt track, Matt slowed the van and switched off the ignition, cursing the fly-tippers. He climbed out of the cab, walked over to the bags and swung them into the back. Things were getting worse round here, he thought sourly, when people would rather divert half a mile down a woodland track than drive to the tip to get rid of some rubbish. It seemed a fitting end to his day, which had included problems on both of the sites he was overseeing. A carpenter had almost severed his thumb and was likely to be out of action for weeks, and a long, whining phone call from Theresa, who had complained that it was almost six weeks since they had spent any ‘quality’ time together. She was slow to get the message, that one. She might turn into a liability.
He had stopped to wipe his hands on a rag when he heard it: a long-drawn-out note that called across the valley, not unlike the sound of a wild animal or bird, if none from round here. He stood still, his ears straining to confirm what they’d heard, and then the music became distinct. Classical stuff.
Matt was in too foul a mood to be moved. Loud music from the big house. ‘That’s all I bloody need,’ he muttered, climbing back into the cab. He reached for the ignition key and glared at the distant outline of the house, just visible beyond the treetops, feeling the familiar resentment that its silhouette now provoked.
But instead of firing the engine, he sat there. And listened.
‘There’s your wick, see? That’s what you want to get lit. You open that little window there and tilt a match . . . That’s how mine works, anyhow. Yours don’t look no different.’
Mr Granger was peering into the innards of the range when they heard the knock. Isabel, who had stopped playing when the children told her what he was doing, was annoyed to be interrupted just as the secrets of the beast were to be revealed.
‘You expecting guests?’
Isabel wiped her hands on her trousers. ‘I don’t know anyone.’ She called upstairs: ‘Kitty? Thierry? Can you answer the door? Mr Granger, could you tell me that bit again about what it means when the flame burns yellow?’
There was thumping upstairs, and Isabel heard the front door open, then feet coming down the creaking stairs.
‘Nothing wrong with the flue,’ said Mr Granger. ‘I stuck me head up there, and you can practically see daylight. You shouldn’t have no problem with it.’
The kitchen door opened and a man in workman’s clothes, with several pens sticking out of the pocket of a faded khaki jacket, came in. Her children appeared behind him.
‘All right there, Matt?’ said Mr Granger. Not like you to be finished before dark. Come to sort out our new neighbour, have you? Reckon you’ll have your work cut out here, mate.’
There was a brief delay before the man smiled and thrust out his hand. Isabel took it, struck by the roughness of his palm. ‘Hello,’ she said, a little disarmed. ‘Isabel Delancey. These are my children, Kitty and Thierry.’
‘Matt McCarthy,’ he said. Clealy he knew that he was attractive. The phrase ‘alpha male’ popped into her head. She couldn’t think where she had heard it.
‘I’ve been teaching them to make a grand fire, I have.’
‘We’re going to lay another in the bedroom now,’ said Kitty, cheerfully.
‘Oh, let’s have one in every room, darling.’ Isabel tossed her a box of matches. ‘Let’s really warm the house up.’
‘Hold on. You want to make sure you’ve got enough logs. Rate you’re going you’ll be through the lot by this evening.’ Mr Granger chuckled. ‘More used to central heating, you see, Matt. Reckon I’ve created a pair of little firebugs.’
‘Not from round here, then?’
Matt McCarthy was studying her intently and Isabel wondered if there was soot on her face. She fought the urge to rub it. ‘No,’ she said, smiling to hide her self-consciousness. ‘We’ve moved from London. We’re a bit hopeless at things like proper fires. Mr Granger’s been sorting us out.’
‘Just looking at this old range,’ said Mr Granger. ‘She wants to get it working. I heard there’s going to be a late frost day after tomorrow. They’ll freeze in this draughty old place.’
‘That range hasn’t been used in years,’ said Matt McCarthy. There was a faint note of assertion in his tone.
‘Don’t look like there’s nothing wrong with her, though.’
‘Have you filled up with oil?’
‘Oil?’ Isabel queried.
‘Oil?’ Matt McCarthy repeated. ‘Fuel?’
‘It needs oil?’
Mr Granger laughed. ‘You didn’t tell me you hadn’t filled the old girl up. There you go. What did you think she ran on? Fresh air?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve never had one before. Logs? Coal? I hadn’t thought about it,’ Isabel confessed.
Mr Granger clapped her on the back, making her flinch. ‘You’ll need to order some. Crittendens’ll be your quickest – tell ’em it’s an emergency. They’ll fill you up in a day or two. The others’ll make you wait a week.’
‘What do I fill?’ she said, wishing she didn’t sound quite so clueless.
‘The tank.’ It was the first time Matt McCarthy had smiled properly. But there was something not quite friendly in it. She was just registering this when he spoke again, more warmly now. ‘It’s at the back near the barn. You want to get your husband to check it for holes, though – it’s a bit rusty.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, a little stiffly. ‘But it’s just us.’
‘Don’t like to see a lady and her children without hot water. It ain’t right. Still, at least you’ll have your fire tonight.’ Mr Granger wiped his hands and put on his hat, ready to leave.
‘I’m very grateful,’ Isabel said, scrabbling in her bag for her purse.
‘Oh, don’t worry about that now. See me at the end of the week once you’ve got yourself straight,’ Mr Granger said. ‘I’ll be down this way so I’ll call in Friday morning. See how you’re getting on. And I’ll bring you a trailer of logs, if I can get them down your drive. More warmth you can put into this place, the better – dry it out a bit.’ He gestured out of the window towards the trees. ‘Reckon you’ll be all right for next year, eh? Matt.’ He nodded, then made his way up the stairs, followed by Kitty and Thierry.
Once he had gone the room seemed inordinately quiet. Conscious of the sorry state of the kitchen and her own dishevelment Isabel felt awkward, as she often did with men now. It was as if Laurent had taken with him a layer of her skin. ‘So, we’re neighbours,’ she said, trying to recover her composure. ‘Yours must be the house we passed on our way in. Would you like a cup of tea? I’d offer you something stronger but I’m afraid we’re at sixes and sevens.’