Read The Girl Next Door Online

Authors: Ruth Rendell

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BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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,” said Freya. “You’re better fitted to do it than I am.”

Her sister cast up her eyes, a habit of hers. “You mean you’re passing the buck.”

“Well, I can’t do it, can I, Fen? I’m getting married on Saturday and I’ll be away in Morocco for a fortnight. That would really be passing the buck. It would be best to wait till I’m gone. Pick a time when Granddad’s not there, that’s essential.”

“Obviously,” said Fenella. “This is all very difficult for me. I shall have to find someone to be with the kids, I can’t take them with me. Suppose she—well, bursts into tears?”

“Mum’ll take the kids. She’ll be so thankful not to have to tell Grandma herself.”

“You’d better give me the details all over again. I don’t want to get it wrong.”

been a principle of Rosemary’s that it was not for a wife to concern herself overmuch with what her husband did. This had always included how he passed his days while at “business,” while with his male friends—he would have no female friends—what his interests were, anything to do with politics or the inside of a car engine. This was why she had never asked him about Robert Flynn, what Robert had said and what Alan had said. Alan’s doing his best to memorise the details of a house he had never been in had been in vain because Rosemary had never asked him what it was like. So when he returned from Dorset and the old school reunion, she asked him only if he had had a nice time. She was a little surprised because he insisted on telling her what they had eaten at the reunion banquet in the great hall and how pleased he had been at not having to share a room in the hotel booked for them. But she merely said how glad she was he had enjoyed himself. She had learned on the BBC’s early-evening news of a serious delay on the Great Western line on Saturday afternoon, and she hoped it hadn’t made him late, but he had only given the perfectly acceptable answer that the Penzance train was held up, not his.

The copper-coloured silk suit was no longer hanging up in the
hall outside the sewing room but had been moved, still suspended, to their bedroom. Like Ahab to Elijah or Orwell’s Gordon to a houseplant, “Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?” said Alan aloud when he saw it. But he didn’t mind it, he didn’t mind anything. He was happy. He knew he shouldn’t be. Taking Rosemary out to dinner that evening was a monstrous thing to do. You don’t compensate for adultery by such acts, but he had already asked her and she had accepted. She might, she said, even wear the suit—but better not perhaps. It must be worn for the first time at Freya’s wedding, that had been her original intention and she must stick to it.

He had forgotten all about Freya’s wedding, and for a moment a cloud passed across his sunny sky as he remembered he had promised Daphne to spend Saturday night with her. But how he was going to manage this, he had had no idea. On the other hand he had had a good idea that at the wedding he would get a chance to talk to Rosemary’s sister and suggest to her that she and Rosemary should go away somewhere on holiday together. Switzerland, maybe. He wasn’t fond of Switzerland, a good reason for Rosemary, who loved it, to go with Elizabeth instead of him. The copper-coloured silk suit fluttered a little in the breeze from the open window, showing with irritating clarity the asymmetry of its lapels.

Out for a walk later in the day, he sat on a log under the forest trees and tried to phone Daphne, but failing to get a signal, the mobile made no more than a shrill noise. In the evening, secretly out on the balcony, he managed to speak to her, arranging that “come what may” he would spend Thursday with her, though not, alas, Saturday night.

It was an unfortunate day to have chosen, or perhaps other choices he made were unfortunate. Having spent a lovely day with Daphne, forgetting his resolve not to make love on a sofa in the afternoon, he might have left an hour earlier but instead got into the tube at Warwick Avenue at half past seven and changed at Oxford Circus onto a Central Line train bound for Theydon Bois. West
End shops stay open much later than usual on Thursdays, and the overdressed woman laden with bags from Selfridges and Zara, sitting in the far corner of the carriage, passed unrecognised by him. He, however, was spotted by Helen Batchelor, who quickly made up her mind not to “see” him.

She would probably have done nothing about it had she not come into Loughton the next day to visit her brother-in-law George, who was recovering at home from a heart attack, a mild one but still not to be dismissed. Having handed over the obligatory bunch of flowers and box of Quality Street, she wished George a rapid improvement and left to do some shopping in the High Road, leaving her car on the only parking place she was likely to find on a Friday afternoon. Rosemary was also out shopping, to buy a spare pair of tights lest the ones she would be wearing for the wedding spring a ladder at the crucial time.

They had met only once before. Rosemary would have passed her by with a vague sense of having seen that woman somewhere, but Helen, who was more observant than Rosemary and had better sight, greeted her with a “Hi, Rosemary, how are you?”

Rosemary said she was fine, thanks, thinking what else can you say and why do people ask?

“What a coincidence,” said Helen. “I haven’t seen either of you for years, and then all of a sudden I see your husband”—she had forgotten his name—“in the tube on Thursday night and you in the High Road on Friday. I’d got in at Bond Street and he got in at Oxford Circus.”

Rosemary said nothing. She gave a vague nod. The other woman—was she called Helen?—began telling her about George, poor George, and his heart, which he never took care of as he should. Rosemary excused herself by saying she must get on and went to buy her tights in a kind of daze. This Helen must be wrong, of course. She probably drank, she looked as if she did. Alan was at home. She took the new pair of tights into her bedroom and
came out to find him on the balcony, reading something. It might be poetry or some “classic”; she took little interest in what he read, it always seemed such a waste of time. He looked up, smiled at her, and said something about how nice it was to be able to sit out here in the sunshine.

“Whatever were you doing getting into the tube at Oxford Circus last night?”

Instead of blushing, which wasn’t his way, he turned white. She didn’t notice but he did, or, rather, he felt it happen, a shuddering withdrawal of blood from his cheeks. Unable to speak, he clenched his hands, then managed, “I went to Robert’s club, left him there. Cavendish Square.”

“I thought Owen was driving you out to the Norfolk Show.”

Why would he ever have wanted to go to an agricultural show, and why would their son, living and working in Winchester, have driven him there? It was the feeblest and most unlikely excuse. But he had made it and she remembered.


, Alan had worn a suit for the wedding, probably his best suit if you categorised such garments, but the first man he saw when they arrived was in morning dress. The day was beautiful, warm and sunny. He hadn’t envisaged a garden, but the hotel had one, large, with lawns, rosebuds, shrubbery, tall trees, and a river frontage.

A man dressed like a Yeoman of the Guard whom Rosemary called a master of ceremonies was ushering guests in through a kind of tent or marquee attached to the back of the hotel. Taking their places in a queue, Alan was conscious of women ahead of them, and soon behind them, dressed elegantly compared to poor Rosemary. He suddenly felt enormous pity for her along with his guilt. If only someone would come up to them and tell her how nice she looked, even ask her where she had bought her suit. But no one did, and they were soon shaking hands with David and kissing Freya. Rosemary, who had already told Alan how odd it was to see the bride and, come to that, the groom before the ceremony had taken place, said, “Happy is the bride that the sun shines on.”

Alan doubted that he would have winced at that six months ago. He did now. Was he imagining the look Freya gave him? There she stood in a white-lace creation, cut low, her left arm full of white
roses, her eyes penetratingly on him for no more than a few seconds but narrow with condemnation. Or so he thought, his guilt thinking for him. Back in the garden, Rosemary had spotted Judith and Fenella and Fenella’s husband, Giles, and homed in on them. It would have been better to have approached people they
know and introduced themselves, but Alan knew Rosemary would never do that. He thought, perhaps again imagined, that his other granddaughter gave him a look that was not exactly hostile but rather of the reproving sort a mother reserves for her disobedient child. Judith, on the other hand, had an ironical smile on her face, sheltered by a cartwheel hat. He dipped under the hat to kiss her, thinking, They know. My daughter and my granddaughters know. Just as Helen Batchelor knew.

A net was closing in. He felt a real shiver of fear. Not for himself but for Rosemary and what she might do, something he couldn’t envisage. He was realising that it is impossible to imagine how someone, however well you know her and for how long, when confronted by a situation quite alien to her, quite outside her way of life and that of everyone she knows, will react. It could be with tears, with screaming, with loud-voiced threats, with—please God, not that—the declared intention of suicide.

“A penny for them,” said Rosemary merrily. A woman had just approached her, been introduced by Fenella, and remarked on Rosemary’s “beautiful suit.”

Alan said nothing. What could you ever say? Certainly not the truth. Another introduction followed, Fenella presenting the woman’s husband. “Grandma, Granddad, I don’t think you know Sir William Johnson. He’s my godfather.”

Had Alan and Rosemary been at Fenella’s christening, thirty-five years before? He had no memory of it, nor of anyone before that or later mentioning this tall, distinguished-looking man in a morning coat with a gardenia in the buttonhole. He had a fine head of curly hair, close-trimmed and white as snow. Something about him,
something distant and remote, rang, as Rosemary would say, a bell. Alan tried to put his finger on that bell, make it ring again, but the faint recognition was gone. All he could think was that Sir William (now addressed by Fenella as Uncle Bill) was about the same age as himself.

They were filing into the hotel for the ceremony, to be performed by a registrar. Alan hadn’t been to anyone’s wedding for years; perhaps Fenella’s had been the last, but that had been in a church, an unfamiliar service certainly and probably from the
Alternative Service Book
, but this was, while of no great interest to him, a “travesty” according to Rosemary’s whispering. He was relieved when the limited vows had been made and the last poem written specially by a relative or friend had been read.

Lunch soon followed, not a help-yourself affair, but a series of courses of the stuffed-courgette-flowers, black-pasta-with-prawns, roast-grouse variety, served at tables each for four. Alan felt a heavy depression begin to settle on him, a condition he was occasionally subject to but had never experienced since his reunion with Daphne. Coupled with it was a sensation of horror that he might never see her again, that his own relations at this wedding, his son, his daughter, his granddaughters, and their husbands would close round him and, uniting with Rosemary in consolidated love, crush his and Daphne’s joy or dismiss it as an unsuitable “fling” already over.

Sir William and Lady Johnson were the other guests at their table, this placement arranged probably by Freya because all four were much the same age. Again Alan felt he knew William Johnson, though the deep, rather slow voice was unfamiliar. Lady Johnson, younger than her husband and addressed by him as Amanda, was thin, blond, and beautifully dressed in a gown of much the same colour as Rosemary’s suit but bearing, to Alan’s untutored eye, the unmistakable stamp of Paris. Her small, head-clinging hat he thought a wise choice at a gathering where obstruction of the view
of the principal players was unfortunate. It was upsetting to realise that he had begun comparing Rosemary to other women, most of whom he was now seeing as more attractive and better dressed than she. This unpleasant reverie was interrupted by Sir William’s saying, “I believe I know you from somewhere, but it’s a long time ago.”

His voice was cut off by the master of ceremonies’ announcing a speech to be made by a friend of the bridegroom’s, a man who would once have been called the best man. Alan glanced at Sir William and nodded, but no more talking was possible. The speech was short and without facetiousness or obscene jokes. It is hard to make arch sexual references when the couple you are toasting have been living together for five years. Everyone wanted to start eating but weren’t averse to champagne first. Apparently, apart from a rejoinder from the bridegroom and a rather surprising raising of glasses to the Queen, there were to be no more speeches. A bottle of white and a bottle of red wine arrived at their table, and Alan said, “I know you from somewhere too. I knew you as Bill. Your voice deceived me but I realise it must have broken a couple of years after we were all in the”—Alan hesitated—“the qanats.”

Bill Johnson began to laugh, the kind of laughter that arises not from amusement but from appreciation of a question answered.

“The qanats, yes. A long time since I heard that word. We were only there a couple of months, but I often think of the qanats. I even dream of them.” His deep voice sounded deeper but, strangely, more like the tones of the boy of long ago. “My family lived on the Hill at the top and you in Shelley Grove, I think. I remember you now and one or two others. There was a rather glamorous girl called Daphne something, and a boy with difficult parents and all the Batchelor family.”

“I was there too,” said Rosemary.

Alan detected a note of resentment in her voice, but more than that, something of anger at the mention of Daphne’s name. Bill Johnson’s wife heard it too. She looked concerned, glanced at her
husband, and Bill responded with the tact Alan associated with the diplomat he later learned his old friend had once been. “Of course you were. Rosemary, the only girl who was a regular attender. Did you two meet there?”

“That’s right,” she said none too pleasantly. “We’ve known each other all our lives. We were inseparable, weren’t we, Alan?”

Although it had little to do with the ceremony they had just witnessed, a line from the old marriage service came into Alan’s mind:
Whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.
It wasn’t comforting. They ate their lunch, an unsuitable time to raise the matter of the hands discovery. But Bill Johnson mentioned it afterwards. He also said that he had been at Cambridge with Daphne. Alan felt a surge of jealousy, quietened a little when Bill said they had had almost no contact while at the university but hers was a face you would never forget. Amanda Johnson, who had taken little part in the conversation but listened pleasantly and occasionally exchanged a word with Rosemary, said that they must all meet again. Dinner perhaps. She would phone. Alan had no faith in that kind of promise of invitations and reunions. They were always forgotten. Rosemary would veto it, anyway.

They parted for more walking round the gardens and watching Freya and David depart for their honeymoon flight to Morocco. The usual lowering of spirits which always comes at weddings when the couple have left settled on the company. People began to leave. Alan found himself and Rosemary close to Judith, and Alan asked her about Bill Johnson.

“When Maurice and I were in Sudan, Bill was our ambassador in Khartoum. We were very much thrown together, there weren’t many English people there then, probably thousands now. Maurice asked him to be godfather to Fenella. He’s been a very good godparent, always remembered her birthday and whatever.”

“A godparent,” said Rosemary repressively, “is supposed to bring the godchild before the bishop at a suitable age for confirmation.”

No one cares about that sort of thing anymore.”

“We all knew each other slightly as children.” Alan knew he had spoken of “all” and “slightly” to mollify Rosemary and despised himself for it. “You never mentioned him before.”

“I did, Dad, but you weren’t listening. I never knew about you all being mates as kids, did I?”

It hadn’t been a successful day, not for some of the guests. To his shame, Alan thought that the one thing he had got out of it was the chance, perhaps, to use Bill Johnson as a future alibi. He felt his phone in his pocket, the smooth, rectangular shape of it, and thought, Let me have a moment alone and I will phone Daphne, but there was to be no moment of solitude. Fenella ran up to them just as they were leaving.

“Oh, Grandma, I’ve got an appointment in Epping next Wednesday afternoon and I thought I might pop in and see you on the way back.”

Rosemary said that would be lovely, darling.

“And you too, Granddad?”

No one ever had appointments in Epping, Alan thought, not unless they lived there and went to the dentist or to have their hair done. And why ask if he’d be there? Because she wanted him to be or didn’t want him to be?

He nearly said he didn’t know. But, no, he wouldn’t be there, he’d go and see Daphne. “No.” His voice was chilly. “I won’t be there. I won’t be back till late.”

BOOK: The Girl Next Door
12.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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