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Authors: Ruth Rendell

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BOOK: The Girl Next Door
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“He seems to have been fond of her insofar as he could be fond,” said Zoe, who had lately given up never criticising his father. Perhaps she realised Michael was no longer the child she had to protect from an ugly truth; had she known it, he knew better than she. “Anyway, he may have had a bit of a guilty conscience. Sheila probably took an overdose on purpose, whatever the inquest said. She seemed very unhappy to me.”

“Yes, she did,” Michael said, waiting for more, but none came. What did it matter? No more revelations about this father could shock him now. Any connection with himself had come to an end on the platform at Victoria station six decades ago. He had just one question, the one he had never before asked.

“Just how old is he?”

“He’ll be a hundred next January.”

A
T NO TIME
in his life before had Alan ever concentrated his thoughts on one person in one situation and done so for day after day. He thought of Daphne when falling asleep, and Daphne was the first
to come to mind when he awoke. He set her in her house and saw her moving among the rooms—even those rooms he had never yet seen—he saw her walking up Hamilton Terrace and walking along St. John’s Wood Road, stopping sometimes to talk to some faceless neighbour. He saw her reclining on the sofa where they had lain, a book in her hand, and then she laid the book aside to think—perhaps—of him. Most of all, when dwelling on her, he was asking himself what they were going to do. Would the sort of promise she had made to him ever come true? It was so unlikely, he was too old; and this too had to be faced,
she
was too old. People didn’t fall in love at their age—but they do.

He had supposed, and in a way hoped, that setting eyes on Rosemary after he returned from his visit to Hamilton Terrace would bring guilt, enormous guilt. He might, he had considered while sitting in the tube, even feel a kind of relief that Rosemary’s presence, Rosemary’s existence, would show him his and Daphne’s folly, the impossibility of what they had half planned to do and the sheer wrongness of it. But this had passed in a moment to be replaced by a thought that it would be wrong, even if possible now, to dismiss this joy he and she contemplated. It was something he would bitterly regret for the rest of what life remained to him. Telling himself that he would be a useless companion to Rosemary now, no husband, a shell, his whole mind and heart given to another woman even if he looked like the man she was married to—that was a hypocritical let-out.

Rosemary was a good woman, he repeatedly told himself, devoted to him, a homemaker, his carer, the mother of his children. Then a small voice inside him said that of all that, only the last was true. An image of the sewing machine appeared in his mind’s eye. A song from some musical had been about the sewing machine being a girl’s best friend. How ancient that seemed, how antediluvian. Rosemary’s sewing machine had been his worst enemy. The sound it made, that buzz that was unlike any other, got increas
ingly on his nerves. No other woman he knew possessed a sewing machine, though many had done so when he was young. The only other one he knew of was in the dry cleaner’s they patronised in the High Road, where a woman in a sari sat in the window stitching seams. How grossly unfair he was being! He couldn’t leave Rosemary, anyway. It was unthinkable. Yet he was thinking of it as often as he thought of Daphne.

He continued to make his excuse of a meeting with Robert Flynn, though growing aware that he would have to think of some alternative reason for going out without Rosemary. Now he needed a new pretext, this time for staying away overnight. Lying, which he had once believed he found difficult if not impossible, had become simple, largely because—and this was an additional trouble to him—his hearer was so innocent and so trusting. That made untruthfulness so much more outrageous. Yet he and Daphne couldn’t go on as they were, kisses and afternoon visits, however delightful. He knew himself and was aware that for him love-making should take place at night-time, not necessarily in the dark, but at least in artificial light. And in a bed if possible, not on a sofa. It was his age. Wasn’t it true that for this fundamental aspect of our being, for sex and love, we want the circumstances, the setting, and the very sounds and scents of our youth? That might well be why some marriages endured more or less for ever. He thought, as he often did, of Daphne’s father’s car at dusk on Baldwin’s Hill. The smell of her now was the same, the feel of her. She was the first woman he had had and would, if all could miraculously go well, be the last.

He would be found out through Robert Flynn. That was why he must think of another excuse. He thought of all this as he told his usual lie to Rosemary and set off for Loughton station. Robert would phone or his wife would or someone else who knew them both would phone and tell Rosemary that Robert was complaining he never saw Alan these days. Coming home in late evening, he often thought of that. But he need not think of it now, not now.

R
ISOTTO IS A DISH
notoriously difficult to make or if not that difficult, time-consuming. Once you have started it with your rice and mushrooms, say, in the pan, stock added and more stock waiting to be added, you cannot leave it. Constant stirring is essential or disaster ensues. The chef at Lotario’s restaurant in St. John’s Wood High Street was a superb cook and his risotto was famous, thanks in part to culinary features in glossy magazines. The restaurant was always full by eight thirty, but those who booked for seven—the locals and the elderly mostly—found space and soft music, pink tablecloths and napkins, always the best colour, and courteous service. And of course the risotto.

Freya and David had been visiting the flat in the block opposite Lord’s, of which they now had possession. They would move into Oak Tree Court on the following Saturday, but today they were measuring windows for blinds and calculating whether the second bedroom would take a queen-size bed. They arrived there later than they had expected and, once inside, made two discoveries: the previous occupants had removed all the light bulbs and they themselves were highly incompetent both with tape measures and rulers. Near quarrelling, they sought their usual remedy for ill temper, sat down on the newly carpeted floor, and drank a couple of glasses each of the bottle of merlot they had brought with them. This restored their equilibrium, and as it was getting on eight thirty and growing dark, they set off to find a restaurant.

“Why not try Lotario’s?” said Freya. “He’s the man who makes the marvellous risotto.”

“I hate risotto.”

“Then you can have something else.”

The place was crowded. They hadn’t booked, but one table was available to them, the sort no one wants because it is just inside the door and liable to draughts.

“I think we should have a pink tablecloth like these, don’t you?” said Freya, who had something of her grandmother in her.

David was not a talkative man, something which seldom bothered her. They ordered another bottle of merlot, risotto for Freya, spaghetti vongole for David. He was not a people-watcher either, in her opinion, like most men. Her eyes roved round the diners and came to rest on a couple seated at a table diagonally opposite theirs. The man was facing them and the woman had her back to them. Far from young or even in their middle years, they might have been described as in the prime of old age, straight-backed and both with good heads of hair. It seemed as if they had finished eating, but two half-full glasses of wine were still in front of them. The man, whom Freya immediately recognised, had his right hand covering the woman’s left hand across the tablecloth, and now he raised it to his lips.

Freya said faintly, “I don’t believe it.”

“That always means you do.”

“You see those people—the woman in the black and white—that old man with her is my grandfather.”

“D’you want to go over and say hello?”

“Are you kidding?”

Their food came, the risotto and the spaghetti vongole. Freya took a larger-than-usual swig of wine. “I rather hope they don’t see us. That isn’t my grandmother, you know.”

“Some business acquaintance, I expect.”

“He doesn’t have a business.”

David smiled, then laughed. “Well, good luck to him.”

“It isn’t funny.”

The old man was paying his bill. They finished their wine, got up, and began walking towards the door, quite a long way from Freya and David, who kept their eyes downcast. But in Freya’s case, not enough to avoid seeing their departure. “Did you see that?” she said as the door closed behind them. “He had his arm round her like they were young.”

“Maybe they feel young.”

“It’s upset me a lot. I feel sort of disillusioned. I mean, I never dreamt of anything like that. Not Granddad.”

“It’s not our business, Freya.”

“Of course it is. He’s my
granddad.
I really need a drink, something stronger than that red stuff. A grappa. D’you want one?”

“I’m okay. It hasn’t upset
me
.”


N
EXT TIME
,” said Alan, “I’ll stay the night.”

“Good.”

Daphne wouldn’t want to know how he would manage to stay the night, what far greater prevarication would have to be employed, what far bigger lie be told to explain his absence for perhaps twenty-four hours. Not Robert Flynn this time, Alan was growing frightened of Robert Flynn, that this innocent and blameless man might suddenly surface like a monster from a calm sea, rear his ugly head (though Alan remembered him as rather a handsome man) and gnash his shark-like jaws, robbing his quarry of an arm or a leg. For to lose Daphne now would be like the loss of a limb. Of all that Robert Flynn might do, he must not be allowed to take Daphne from Alan; better break up his marriage. But that was already broken, wasn’t it?

Worries, mostly related to Robert Flynn, whose function as an alibi Alan felt he had overused, beset him all the way home in the tube train. He even envisaged walking into the flat and finding not just a wakeful Rosemary sitting there but also Robert Flynn and his wife, whatever she was called, the three of them assembled to examine his lies and excuses and confront him with them. Of course there was nothing of the sort. Rosemary was in bed and presumably asleep, and the copper-coloured silk suit, finished at last, was on a hanger in the hallway.

9

M
ICHAEL CARRIED WITH
him a large box of chocolates. The flowers he would buy in Lewes, if necessary getting the taxi driver to stop at a florist’s on the way to Zoe’s. A phone conversation two days before with Brenda Miller, Zoe’s carer, friend, and companion, had told him there was nothing to worry about. A woman of ninety-six was bound to grow weaker, bound to be frail, but Brenda believed that the doctor, who had called that day, was exaggerating when she said his aunt was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

“I thought, but I didn’t actually say so, that someone of her age could hardly be in the early stages of anything.”

“I’ll be down on Thursday and we’ll see,” said Michael. “She doesn’t want Zoe to go to a—well, a nursing home or a hospice or something, does she?”

“That wasn’t mentioned. That would kill her, we both know that.”

So here he was with his chocolates and his flowers, golden roses and pink and yellow lupins, kissing Zoe, who was smiling at him as she always did. Her voice was a little weaker, her movements a little slower. Instead of a stick, then two sticks to walk with, she was using a walking frame.

“People have stopped called them Zimmer frames,” she said.
“Have you noticed? I think it’s something to do with anti-German prejudice or maybe dislike of the EU.”

That didn’t sound like early-stage Alzheimer’s.

Brenda served lunch, and afterwards the two women ate a couple of the chocolates each. While he was visiting, Zoe omitted her afternoon nap. She would go to bed earlier, she always told him. She didn’t want to sleep while he was there. Besides, today she had something to tell him, it was important, it was private, and she had asked Brenda to leave them alone together for half an hour. Well, twenty minutes. They could ask anything of each other, she and Brenda, offence would never be taken or hard feelings.

Michael saw how little she had eaten, not much more than a scrap of the grilled sole, a wafer-thin piece of bread, and the two chocolates. He noticed too how white she had grown, the skin of her face blanched to a pallor only seen in the very old. It was new, though, as was the loss of colour in her eyes, which were no longer blue but the grey of still water. The blue of her eyes was the first thing he had noticed about her when she’d kissed him on Lewes station.

“Sit down, darling,” she said when they were in her little sitting room, her own private room where people had to be invited in. “My son. I have always thought of you as that. I hope you don’t mind, I won’t labour it.” He reached for her hand and held it. “At my age, Michael, one must always think of dying. One ought to, no harm in that. Every time I see you, I know I may never see you again. I don’t want to talk about your father, and I’m sure you don’t, but there is one thing about him I need to tell you. Well, two things really.

“It was the last time I saw him. He was alone, having left Sheila at home. Poor thing. I hadn’t liked her but I pitied her as once I pitied you. But I think you were lucky, Michael.”

“I know that. Because you found me and brought me here.” He wanted to add,
And made yourself my mother,
but he was afraid he would start crying if he said that.

“I didn’t mean that. I meant because you escaped him. I will tell you quickly what he asked me. I think the word would be
alibi
. I know what it is but not what it means. You’re a solicitor, you’ll know.”

“It’s Latin for ‘elsewhere.’ ”

“Is it? That’s what he asked me when he came here alone. Would I give him an alibi.”

Michael felt like saying he wasn’t hearing this. He didn’t, but he thought that, against nearly all evidence to the contrary, Zoe was succumbing to senility. “An alibi?”

Her old face, already deeply lined, crunched into a mask of wrinkles as she seemed to make a concentrated effort to define what she had said. “ ‘Elsewhere,’ you said. He wanted me to say he was elsewhere. If anyone came asking, I was to say he was here with me.”

“But when, Zoe? How?”

“It was twenty years ago. I was to say that he was here with me, spending the day here, on a specific date in May.”

“You must have asked why?” Michael was starting to feel sick. “You must have asked who would do the asking?”

“I didn’t want to know. I knew it was something awful. I knew him. I just said there was no question of lying for him. He seemed surprised. He said, ‘But you’re my cousin, you’re family.’ ” She gave a deep sigh. “I’ve seen him since, occasionally. He wrote and told me about going into Urban Grange and telling the company that runs the place that he had no next of kin except me. It suited him then to say I was
only
a cousin.”

“His wife was dead by then?” Michael didn’t care, he didn’t want to know, but she seemed to want him to ask.

“She died in June 1985, a few weeks after he asked me what I told you he asked me. Five or six years later he went into Urban Grange. Sheila had become a heavy drinker and she used an enormous amount of what they call prescription drugs. There was an inquest and the verdict was death by misadventure.” Zoe wiped her
upper lip and her forehead with a tissue. “That’s all. I don’t want to say any more. But someone had to know, and who but you?”

These visits always terminated in Michael’s leaving in the early evening. Zoe needed to be in bed by eight. Michael and the two old women sat by the French windows in the sunshine and talked about what they had been doing in the weeks since his last visit. In the case of Zoe and Brenda, what they always did was read the papers and novels, watch television, go for short walks, Zoe in the wheelchair, Brenda pushing it. They repeatedly said how lucky they were. To be living here, to have their own home still, for Zoe’s carer shared everything with her, happiness and gratitude as well as material things. Michael told them about his reunion with friends of his childhood, but said nothing about the discovery of the hands, which they seemed not to have heard of.

Brenda left the room to make tea, and he said quickly and breathlessly, “Zoe, stay alive for me.” He could hardly believe he was saying this, but he went on in this uncharacteristic way, “You are all I’ve got.”

“That’s what I should be saying to you. Anyway, you have your children.”

“I know. I’m very lucky.” Strange how little he thought about them. “Forget what I said.”

“I don’t think so.” She laughed. “It’s not very often one gets such things said to one at my age.”

He kissed both women before he left, giving Zoe a hug as well and letting his cheek lie against hers for longer than usual. He might never see her again.

“W
HAT SHALL WE DO
?” After three days, Freya was still indignant.

“Well, nothing,” said Judith. “I don’t suppose it will come to anything. You’re getting married in two weeks’ time. We don’t want some family upset, do we? And, my God, there would be one if you
were thinking of telling your grandmother what you saw. It’ll all blow over anyway.”

“He had his arm round her, Mum. He kissed her hand.”

Judith started laughing.

“It’s not funny. These are your
parents.

“It just goes to show how enormously things have changed. Even when I was your age, and that isn’t as long ago as you think, old people didn’t have girlfriends and take them out to dinner in London restaurants, the girlfriends didn’t wear four-inch heels, old men didn’t put their arms round them in public. The old men might have been sugar daddies, but not with women of their own age. You did say she was about his age?”

“About that. Very good for her age but about that.”

“You should see how good that is for women in general, Freya. You won’t always be young, you know, and you’ll appreciate having a boyfriend when you’re seventy.”

“But what about poor Gran?”

“What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over.” Judith paused to consider. “You’re sure it was him?”

“Oh, Mum.
Please.

A
GREAT MANY
budding romances must be broken up by the couple’s having left the school they both went to, parted when they went to separate universities. More now than when he was young, Alan was thinking, because at that time fewer girls went on to higher education. But Daphne had gone to Cambridge and he had gone to Reading, and though they had made promises to write—very few expensive long-distance phone calls in those days—their letters dwindled until they ceased altogether. Besides, their relationship—not a word ever used then—was strange. Because of the strong sexual element it necessarily had to be private. Not for them the going to the cinema in the evening, followed by the good-night
kiss. Love-making was what they did, kissing yes, adoring yes, with the sighs and gasps of passion, the talk that followed consisting mainly in planning when they would next meet, where she could park her father’s car so as not to be seen by the neighbours, where he would wait, but not where they would go. That was always the same. Up to Baldwin’s Hill and the enclosing forest. On warm summer nights, the forest floor itself, in leafy caverns made by arching roofs of branches. In green clearings and sometimes, adventurously, against the smooth sealskin trunk of a great beech tree.

Where did her parents think they were? They never talked about their parents, of course not. But once he asked, and Daphne said, visiting a friend of hers, a girl she had been at school with, who lived in St. John’s Road, sufficiently far away to warrant taking the car. Apparently, her father and mother never checked up on her. It was a foretaste of his own insecure alibi with Robert Flynn.
What goes around comes around
was a phrase he had never liked, but here it was apposite. Suppose there had been gap years in those days, suppose she had gone with him to Reading University. There had been some question of it, but her getting to Cambridge was what her parents had wanted, and the prestige of it overcame her—what for him?—love? Lust? Excitement? All those? And to Cambridge she went. He turned to Melanie, but her laugh got on his nerves and he gave her up for Rosemary, who he hoped would be as anxious for sex as Daphne had been. It seemed to him that he had established himself as her boyfriend and Rosemary as his girlfriend with the sole aim of getting her into bed or into the back of some borrowed car. But she held out—oh, how she had held out!—and finally gave way on a painful and messy wedding night in a hotel in Torquay.

Things got better in that area (as Rosemary called it), and he had no complaints. As far as he knew, nor did she. As far as he knew because they never discussed it. Rosemary wouldn’t, the whole subject embarrassed her. Should he have married Daphne? Found her again? After all, he knew where she lived or her parents lived. On
the Hill, opposite where the qanats had been and by that time Warlock stood, next door to Mr. Winwood, who had lived alone without wife or son. He could have found her. It would have meant jilting Rosemary and the consequent terrible fuss made by her parents and his. Besides, life hadn’t been unhappy, only dull. And he had his children and grandchildren.

He was in the tube train on his way to Hamilton Terrace to spend the night with Daphne. That was how he put it to himself, the expression
have sex with
or something more explicit not having been in use when he last made love to her. He had been young then and he was old now, but this troubled him less than the lie he had told Rosemary. Robert Flynn was not much good to him this time, the tubes ran so late, and why on earth would he stay with Robert? The whole thing was absurd. It was some years since he had seen Robert or talked to him, yet he and Rosemary had discussed the man, he to give verisimilitude to his fabrication, even describing Robert’s home because she liked hearing about domestic interiors, his health in comparison to Alan’s fitness, and his loneliness since his wife went away on holiday with her sister. Ridiculous and very wrong. No more Robert now but a visit to an old school reunion to be held, not at Bancroft’s, where he had been a pupil, but for some mysterious reason, in Dorset. In one of those refurbished barns tarted up with a bar and grand banqueting hall in the middle of Hardy country. It almost frightened him thinking of the description of this place he had given. He was afraid of his skill at mendacity. It seemed almost criminal to do it so well.

This evening he and Daphne were not going out for dinner. She would cook for him.

“What do you like best to eat?”

“Oh, anything,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

“What do you like best?”

“Something no one makes anymore. Steak and kidney pie.”

He was sure she would forget. His choice seemed as unlike any
thing she might cook as possible. Surely she was a grilled-calamari woman or a creator of risottos like the restaurant they had been to the previous week.

She hadn’t dressed up for him but wore the simple frock he had so admired her in on their first date. He could tell she was avoiding any appearance of festivity or occasion. They had kissed when he arrived, then lain on that sofa in each other’s arms, whispering what were once, long before his time, called sweet nothings. Sherry was drunk, quite a lot of it, and lines came into his head—Shakespeare, of course—about alcohol provoking the desire but taking away the performance. He needed no aphrodisiac to encourage the desire. As for the performance, he had resolved not to think about that, but he did, inevitably.

The steak and kidney pie was excellent, all it should be, and it was a shame he did less than justice to it. Afterwards they drank red wine with their cheese and then she put on some Bach. He had never associated her with Bach or indeed any kind of music, but it calmed him, which was perhaps what she intended. Apropos of nothing, no words they spoke leading up to it, she said, “It doesn’t matter at all. Remember we have been there, done that.”

“I know.”

They went upstairs with their arms round each other. She turned the lights off, all but the bedside lamp. He could see the forest and its green floor, bracken fern coming into leaf, and the woven tree branches overhead.
The beams of our house are cedars; our rafters are fir. . . .
He held her in his arms and her face against his had the skin of his young lover. It was all right, it was going to be and remain all right.
Behold thou art fair, my love, and our bed is green
.

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