Authors: Amanda Brookfield
This electronic edition published in 2014.
Copyright © 2004 by Amanda Brookfield
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton, a division of Hodder Headline.
The right of Amanda Brookfield to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
For the Hesworth Cousins:
Ceel, Jonny, Kiki, Emma, Kate, Josh, Izzi, Ben and Ali
Thanks for permission to quote from
The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald/06.11.03
Also, thanks for permission to quote from
The Second Coming
by W. B. Yeats kindly given by A. P. Watt on behalf of Michael B. Yeats
I would like to thank the following people for their help in a variety of invaluable ways:
Angela Brookfield, Andrew Charles, Liz Clifford, Sara Menguc, Hazel Orme, Nick Sellick, Sara Westcott
Acclaim for Amanda Brookfield’s novels:
‘Brilliant new novel … Few contemporary British novelists writing today explore the messy tangles of close human relationships with quite such warm perceptiveness as Brookfield’
Sisters and Husbands
‘I savoured every second of this deeply satisfying book. Amanda Brookfield goes from strength to strength. Her best yet. Treat yourself’
Patricia Scanlan on
Sisters and Husbands
‘The novel walks a fine line between comedy and wrenching sadness. It is fluently written and its depiction of domestic chaos and a man’s bewilderment when unexpectedly faced with a young son’s needs is all too recognisable’
The Sunday Times
A Family Man
‘Perceptive and very readable’
Walls of Glass
‘Superb in its minute observation’
‘Amanda Brookfield’s assurance and intelligence make
stand out … A strong sense of humour, a natural narrative gift and controlled, understated characterisation signify a promising debut’
Also by Amanda Brookfield:
The Love Child
Before I Knew You
The Simple Rules of Love
Sisters and Husbands
A Family Man
A Cast of Smiles
A Summer Affair
Walls of Glass
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’
W. B. Yeats,
The Second Coming
John Harrison, returning from the lower field with a barrowful of holly, the leaves a polished leathery green, the berries blood-red baubles in the dusky light, paused at the familiar sight of his home. A sudden drop in temperature, coming after the freakish unseasonal warmth of the day, had created a thin band of waist-high mist, as thick as wool from a distance but dissolving to invisibility as he waded through it. The slate tiles and grey stone chimney-stacks of Ashley House rose out of this trick of nature like some magical and majestic ship on a ghostly sea, its numerous lead-latticed windows – extravagantly illuminated, thanks to the arrival that afternoon of four children, several spouses and seven grandchildren – shining like portholes against the darkening sky. John, inclined normally to keep a beady eye on thermostat dials and light switches when Pamela and he were alone, felt a glow of pride at so much evidence of occupation.
Apart from the absence of horses and hay in the outhouses and barns, and the thick twists of ivy and wisteria trunks across the walls, there had been few physical changes to the property since a windfall on the corn-market had allowed John’s Victorian grandfather, Edmund Harrison, to commission the building of the family home. It had been called Ashley House after his wife, Violet Ashley, who had died in childbirth. The only significant architectural addition since that time had been undertaken by their son Albert, John’s father, who had installed a long, arched porch, running the full length of the back of the house, connected to each of the affected rooms by a series of French windows. Known in family parlance as ‘the cloisters’, and built in the same soft grey brick as the walls to which it was attached, it was a construction that stole a lot of natural light from the interior, but which was generally forgiven this defect for looking so fine, particularly from the outside, and for providing excellent sitting-out space in the summer. John’s own architectural dabblings had been restricted to a conversion of the largest barn into what was, somewhat disparagingly, referred to as the ‘granny flat’, but which was in fact a spacious two-bedroomed little house, complete with its own kitchen and bathroom and front door, ideal for overflow at busy times of year. On this occasion, Alicia, his widowed and increasingly irascible sister, was housed there; so she could be completely comfortable, Pam had soothed, easing over the crinkle of suspicion in her sister-in-law’s eyes that her company was not as eagerly sought after as she would have liked.
John released his grip on the barrow handles and flexed his fingers, which were stiff with cold (and sore, too, from foolishly tackling the holly without the protection of gloves), and continued to stare at the house, squinting as, from time to time, figures moved across the windows, busy in various, easily imagined ways, unpacking suitcases, wrapping gifts, preparing infants for bed or food for the evening meal. There would be salmon, as usual on Christmas Eve, steamed with Pamela’s customary light touch to a succulent white-pink so that the flesh fell off the bones and melted on the tongue; and a generous selection of vegetables that always included beetroot – a particular favourite of John’s – freshly pulled from Ashley House’s own well-stocked vegetable garden. The sprouts served at lunch the following day would also be home-grown, their leaves pale green and tasting faintly of earth and mint. For the younger members of the clan, with
palates not yet sufficiently discerning to enjoy such flavours, there would be simpler alternatives: toad-in-the-hole instead of fish, peas instead of beetroot. The sprouts, however, were unavoidable. At least one on each plate at Christmas lunch was one of those small traditions that had somehow become unquestionable over the years, as such things did in established families, where the minutest ways of speaking and doing took on the comforting resonance of ritual.
‘Here we are again, old fella,’ John murmured, prodding the mud-clogged tip of one wellington boot against the grizzled belly of the black labrador slumped on the ground next to him. ‘Christmas at Ashley House. Won’t be too many more of those for you, eh?’ The dog, who was twelve years old and painfully arthritic unless in pursuit of rabbits, half raised its head, offered a desultory wag of acknowledgement, then dropped its jaw with an audible thwack back on to its outstretched paws.
John bent to pick up the barrow handles and began to weave a somewhat unsteady route up towards the garden, aware of the heaviness of his boots and the mounting knot of stiffness in his lower back. He chose the nearest of the various gates posted round the garden, and paused to check on a lopsided hinge, making a mental note to return that way soon with a hammer and nails. Boots lumbered after him, ignoring the open gate and burrowing under a loose section in the mesh wiring which John had painstakingly rigged round the garden’s substantial boundaries in a bid to deter the rabbit population from socialising on the lawn. A few seconds later the dog trotted back to his side, looking at once triumphant and sheepish, his nose smeared with fresh mud, and an assortment of dead leaves and twigs scattered across his back.
‘Daft beast,’ growled John fondly, adding the loose meshing to his list of things to see to, a list that never seemed to shorten or end and which, while he liked to groan about it, was, he knew, connected to some vital sense of purpose and well-being. The tending of the garden itself never touched his conscience. He had learnt over the years to leave all such nurturing and forethought to his wife, Pamela, who was as dexterous and skilled with seedlings as she was with the jars of ingredients ranged around the oak shelves in the kitchen. She had a library of books on English country gardens and a visionary talent for applying their lore to the fenced two acres surrounding the house. A local man called Sid helped her, emitting monosyllabic grunts of acquiescence to her every command, whether it involved weeding, mowing or lopping branches off trees. No physical challenge ever seemed too great for his wiry frame, although he puffed at pungent roll-ups all day and had the weathered face of a man well past his seventieth birthday. Occasionally John teased Pamela about the physical prowess of their employee, professing jealousy not because he felt any (after fifty years together sex and all its exhausting complications – lust, envy, frustration, longing – had slid so far down the agenda they were practically out of sight) but because he liked to see how the echo of a reference to such fierce emotions made her smile. In truth, John was happy to be left to dabble in the fields and woods comprising the remaining twenty acres of the estate, attending to clogged ditches, sagging fences and rebellious outcrops of brambles and nettles. Armed often with just a walking stick (he had several to choose from lined up along the wall of the garden shed, their knobbled handles smooth from use), his beloved multipurpose penknife and a few bits of wire and string, he would spend up to several hours at a time lost in the Ashley House grounds, humming contentedly at his small, invariably doomed, attempts to keep nature at bay. Sometimes, on chilly or particularly dank mornings, Pamela would slip into his anorak pocket a little Thermos of tea, which he would drink sitting on a tree stump, sucking on his pipe, marvelling at familiar things, like the cosy undulating beauty of the Sussex countryside, or that he had somehow arrived at the outrageously advanced age of seventy-nine without serious mishap to himself or any member of his family. All four of his
children were in good health, as were their various offspring; his sister Alicia had lost her husband some years before, but was otherwise well, as was her son, Paul, who had married an Australian girl and settled in Sydney.
The only real shadow to fall across the picture had been cast by Eric, his elder brother, who, thanks to a severe stroke in his fifties, had for many years been resident in a nursing-home. But, then, as Pamela was so good at pointing out, Eric had had a marvellous innings, playing soldiers in foreign countries and pursuing all manner of hare-brained adventures before Fate had played its cruel hand. The home he was now in was just a few miles away, allowing them to make regular visits and keep an eye on the quality of nursing care, which had not always been topnotch. These days – since Eric’s own savings had dried up – John paid the nursing-home fees, which were substantial. There was nothing more they
do, Pamela had assured him that morning, when the combination of a bill from the nursing-home and the prospect of yet another Christmas without the once-stimulating presence of his beloved big brother had made John sigh. They would visit him on Boxing Day as usual, with a string of grandchildren in tow, she said, offering instant and tremendous solace as she always did.
‘If it wasn’t for him …’ John began, sliding a piece of toast into the right side of his mouth, because of some twanging among the roots of his teeth on the other side.
‘We wouldn’t be here,’ Pam had finished for him, using the brisk tone she reserved for this inevitable next-step in any Eric conversation, which referred to her brother-in-law’s decision five decades earlier to hand over the family home to John and take off round the world instead. Although Eric had never made any show of regretting his decision – on the contrary, he had seemed always to revel in his rootless, bachelor life – a residue of uneasiness about it had pursued John through the years. He had given Eric the lion’s share of the money instead. But money wasn’t the same as property. Eric’s savings were exhausted, but Ashley House was now worth two million at least. More importantly, the house was like an integral part of the family, a character in its own right, whose mossy, weathered walls had protected three generations of Harrisons with the quiet defiance of what felt to John (particularly in a sentimental mood, as he was now, with the house bulging and the scent of Christmas in the air) like some kind of timeless, protective love. Over the years the house had not just contained the family, but grown round them all, as intertwined and inseparable from their lives as the Victorian roses twisting through the old arched pergola skirting the lawns and the honeysuckle knotted along the stone wall of the kitchen garden.