Authors: Erica James
Copyright © 2011 by Erica James
Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Laura Duffy
Cover images © plainpicture/Fancy
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
Fax: (630) 961-2168
Originally published in the UK in 2010 by Orion Books
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The queen of new beginnings / by Erica James.
1. Man-woman relationships—Fiction. 2. Housekeepers—Fiction. 3. Authors—Fiction. I. Title.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
To Edward and Samuel, who are unquestionably the best.
“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
—Leo Tolstoy,Anna KareninaCHAPTER ONE
Clayton Miller had a new hobby. Some might argue it was more of an obsession than a hobby and certainly he knew Stacey wouldn’t hesitate to use the word obsession. She would probably say that it was yet another example of his rampant self-absorption.
Maybe she was right. Either way, he didn’t care. So what if he now spent what Stacey would describe as an unnatural amount of time writing his obituary? It served the purpose of keeping his mind active whilst distracting it at the same time. Not that he went along with the Use It Or Lose It evangelists. On the contrary. He believed in using his brain as little as he could get away with in the hope that it wouldn’t be worn out when he needed it most. Look at Iris Murdoch. One of the sharpest minds of the last century and she still went ga-ga. Why? Because she wore her brain out. Case closed.
The obituary page was often what he read first in a newspaper; he enjoyed peering in through the gap in the curtains of a stranger’s life. Frequently, though, he found himself speculating just how accurate the descriptions were. The question he was facing with his own obituary was just how truthful he should be. The lure to embellish his life with a flourish of colour here and there was proving strong.
Clayton Miller, aged only forty-four and undoubtedly one of the most prolific and best comedy scriptwriters this country has produced, tragically died on his way home to his weekend retreat in the country from an award ceremony during which he’d been given a much-deserved lifetime achievement award for his contribution to the world of comedy; the standing ovation he received went on for a record twelve minutes and fifty-two seconds. An hour later his Bentley Continental GTC Convertible was involved in a head-on collision with a Vauxhall Astra driven by an unknown man. The unknown man survived the crash, but will spend the rest of his life with the death of a truly exceptional writer on his conscience.
A private funeral service will take place for the much-missed Clayton Miller, followed later by a memorial service at Westminster Abbey where his legion of fans can pay their last respects.
In a bizarre twist of fate it would later be revealed that the unknown man was none other than Barry Osborne, Clayton’s one-time best friend and writing partner.
He was not a vindictive man by nature, but circumstances had altered Clayton’s thinking when it came to Barry—or Lucky Bazza as he thought of him. He couldn’t go so far as to kill him off in his imagination or wish a gruesome life-threatening illness on him, but he did think it appropriate that if Clayton should be unfortunate enough to meet an untimely end, Lucky Bazza should suffer for it. If only with a guilty conscience. A fair exchange in Clayton’s opinion, given that Bazza had robbed Clayton not only of his writing career, but his long-term partner as well.
But so much for embellishment. A truthful obituary would sadly fall well short of the glowing tribute Clayton had in mind for himself. All that would stand up to a lie detector would be Clayton’s age. By no stretch of the imagination could he now be described as prolific. Nor did he own a Bentley. Or a house in the country. And since he hadn’t written anything more coherent than a shopping list or his obituary in the last three years, there would be some people who would call him a has-been. A failure.
If it hadn’t been for recent events—he squeezed his eyes shut at the memory—he would be lucky to get more than a couple of lines in the papers:Clayton Miller, co-writer and creator of the hit seriesJoking Asidedied today aged forty-four. Separated from his long-term girlfriend six months ago, he lived alone with only his writer’s block for company.
But if he were to die right now, as a consequence of recent events he would garner quite a few columns inches. Though God knew what they would write about him. Probably they would point the finger at his mental balance and say he’d been off his rocker. Crazier than Britney Spears. Or more out of control than Messrs Brand and Ross. They might even hint that his death was not from natural causes, that he had engineered it as a way out.
He opened his eyes. Another five minutes trapped in this rattling, airtight Nissan taxi and engineering his suicide would look remarkably appealing. The car’s suspension made it seem like taking a ride on a jelly—not that he’d ever taken a ride on a jelly; who had?—and its lurching motion was causing his stomach to pitch and heave. He was sure that his face was as green as the toxic, pine tree-shaped air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror. The driver had the heater switched to hot-enough-to-melt-the-dashboard and worse, the man kept coughing and sneezing. Bubonic plague was probably in the offing.
Clayton blamed his current predicament on Glen, his agent. It had been Glen’s idea for him to hide out in some off-the-beaten- track place where the press wouldn’t find him. Doubtless it would prove to be one of those places where there were road names like Lower Bottom Lane, Big Bottom Lane, and Up Your Bottom.
Whatever hellish place he was destined to take refuge in, he hoped the driver knew the way, that he hadn’t been lying when he’d looked at the address Clayton had given him at the station. There was no sign of any satnav equipment on the dashboard, which Clayton took to be a good sign. It ruled out the possibility of a bossy-voiced woman misdirecting them down a one-way track to a ravine and their certain death.
Death. There it was again. It kept popping into his thoughts at the slightest provocation. Was he suicidal?
Murderous, more like it. He could happily take out all those journalists who had written about him lately and never experience a moment’s regret. It wouldn’t solve a damned thing, but since when had revenge been about solving anything?
He wiped at the steamed up window and looked out. Nothing. Zilch. Just miles of empty fields and drystone walls. Wherever he was, with the light fading, it looked suspiciously like the end of the world. He closed his eyes once more and tried to picture himself in happier times when he had been at the height of his creativity.
• • •
It was dark when the Nissan finally came to a stop. The ratcheting sound of the handbrake being yanked on woke Clayton. He stepped out of the car and stretched. Weary and dishevelled, he was in need of a long hot shower.
He looked up at the house and didn’t like what he saw. It was huge. Huge and unwelcoming. It seemed to glower down at him with the kind of I’m-bigger-than-you attitude that had terrorized many a school playground since time immemorial. It made him want to run and hide.
“It’s some place you’ve got yourself here,” the driver said as he hauled Clayton’s luggage out of the boot.
“It’s not mine,” Clayton answered him.
“Just visiting, then?”
Eager not to part with any information about himself—Glen had warned him to keep his mouth shut—he shrugged and nodded evasively. He paid the man and watched the tail lights of the Nissan disappear down the lengthy, straight drive and into the night.
Alone, he sought out the large flowerpot he had been instructed to locate, and rummaged around in the dark until he found what he was looking for. What kind of a neighbourhood was it that you could leave a key under a flowerpot in this day and age?
He let himself in and at once experienced a pang of longing for the toxic warmth of the Nissan taxi. The house was icy-cold. Was this his punishment? To freeze in hell?
How Stacey and Lucky Bazza would love that.CHAPTER TWO
“OK, Alice, we’re all done here. That last bit works perfectly now. Thanks for doing it again. You’re a star.”
Alice looked through the glass to where Josie and the sound engineer were sitting; she nodded at the thumbs up sign they were both giving her. She took off her headphones and stretched. It had been a tiring day. Eight hours of speaking like a chipmunk; it would wear anyone out.
Alice first discovered she had a talent for mimicry when she was eleven years old. Her mother had been away in London and her father, in a frenzy of creativity, had locked himself in his darkroom at the top of the house. Which meant Alice was left to her own devices, a state of affairs she was more than used to. On this particular Monday morning, being between au pairs, she had knocked on her father’s door to ask him to drive her to school. Getting no response, and being a resourceful child, she had taken matters into her own hands. She had gone back downstairs and dialled the number for the school secretary’s office. She could have walked but it would have taken for ever, and it would also have drawn attention to her father’s somewhat casual attitude to parenting. And anyway, Alice hadn’t felt like school that day. “I’m very sorry,” she had said in her mother’s low velvet-smooth voice—the voice that millions were familiar with both on radio and television—“This is Mrs. Barrett and I’m calling to say that Alice is suffering from a horrible stomach bug and will be staying at home today.”
She had spent most of the day lying on the sofa in toast and peanut butter heaven watching corny old movies, happily dreaming one day of being an actress herself. Of being a star. Her father appeared in the middle of the afternoon and didn’t bat an eyelid at the sight of her still in her dressing gown. “You’re home early,” he remarked, helping himself to her last piece of toast.
From mimicking her mother, she moved on to impersonating her teachers. This raised her stock amongst her peers—if not her teachers—and further fuelled her ambition to be an actress.
Five years ago she might have believed that there was still a chance of that dream coming true. But now, at the age of thirty-one, she had accepted that things hadn’t turned out quite as she’d hoped; a corner had been turned and stardom had passed her by on the other side of the road.
Instead she did voice-overs, along with reading for audio books. She was doing rather well with children’s books right now and the author James Montgomery—be still her beating heart—was, as her agent told her, her number one fan and would have no one else read his books. His sales were growing but experience told Alice this was a double-edged sword. If his books became massively successful, she would be out of a job; a big named actor would be brought in to take her place. Some years back she had been the original voice of This Little Piggy—a porcine version of My Little Pony. Her voice, so she had been told, was perfect when the television advertisement was first aired, but six months later, when sales for This Little Piggy had gone through the roof of the pig-sty and were expected to soar higher still with a worldwide market, her agent telephoned with the bad news that Zoë Wanamaker had been signed up in her place.
So yes, Alice was pragmatic enough to know that James Montgomery might well be her number one fan now, but things had a nasty habit of changing. Whatever the future held, she was quite used to taking disappointment on the chin and convincing herself something better—a new beginning—was just around the corner.
She left the recording studio thirty minutes later and drove home. Whenever she told people what she did for a living, they always assumed that she was up and down to London to some kind of glamorous Media Land studio, mixing with the rich and famous. When she explained that the bulk of her work was done in a converted coach house on the outskirts of Nottingham, she saw the disappointment in their faces. Suddenly her work didn’t seem so thrilling. And nor was it: it could be painstaking and exhausting. But at least the work her agent found her was plentiful and varied. She could be in a studio in Manchester one day doing an advert for a commercial radio station, the next she could be down in London providing the voice for a major bank and its telephone-operated accounts, and another she could be the calm, reassuring voice advising airline passengers how to avoid a DVT and what to do in an emergency. The first time she had worked for an airline company, midway through the recording of what to do in the event of a crash she had been overcome with the urge to say in a quiet matter-of-fact voice, “Never in the history of aviation has an aircraft survived an impact with the ocean at great speed, so if I were you, I wouldn’t bother with the life jackets.” She would have loved then to scream into the microphone in a terrified voice, “You’re all going to die!”
It took her longer than usual to complete the journey home to Stonebridge and before she had got the key in the door of her cottage, she heard footsteps behind her. She turned, hoping it wasn’t who she thought it might be. She really wasn’t in the mood.
Another wish denied her: sure enough it was Bob the Body Builder. “Hello, Bob,” she said. “What are you doing there lurking like a mugger in the shadows?”
“Hey, no one who looks as good as this lurks in the shadows.” To prove his point, he flexed his biceps and thrust out his colossal chest. Goodness only knew how many hours of weight lifting he was doing now or what quantity of steroids he was consuming. Despite the cold November weather, he was dressed in his customary bursting-at-the-seams T-shirt and baggy tracksuit bottoms. His exposed flesh was sun-bed tanned and as hairless as a baby’s bottom. He was buffed to within an inch of his life. “This is a package that stands out,” he said. “Trust me when I say it amazes and astonishes.”
“As does your modesty.”
“I’ve told you before, Alice, all that modesty claptrap is for losers.”
“So what can I do for you?”
“Mum needs a favour. She said to ask you to come round the moment you got home.” Suddenly Bob the Body Builder sounded like a six-year-old boy. Sweet.
“Tell her I’ll be there in five minutes.”
He puffed out his chest again. “How about that drink you’re just dying to have with me tonight?”
Ah, not so sweet. “Sorry, Bob, it’s been a long day.”
He shrugged. “Your loss.”
“I’ll do my best to try and get over it,” she said. She turned the key in the lock of her door and stepped inside.
Ever since Bob and his mother had moved in next door last year, Ronnetta Tanner had been trying to fix Alice up with her beloved son. “He’d be perfect for you,” Ronnetta had said. In what way exactly, Alice wasn’t entirely sure. The only thing they had in common was their age.
• • •
Whenever Ronnetta Tanner opened the doors of her 1960s drinks cabinet, Alice always expected to hear the tinkling music-box sound of Greensleeves, accompanied by a mechanical ballerina pirouetting stiffly amongst the glasses and bottles. In the absence of these two things, there was a light that illuminated the interior of the cabinet as well as the two flamingos etched into the glass panels on the inside of the doors. Kitsch didn’t do it justice.
“What’ll it be, then?” Ronnetta asked Alice in her gravelly voice that had only recently seen the back of a fifty-a-day habit following a course of hypnotherapy. It was a gift of a voice for Alice to copy and she had used it several times in her voice-over work.
“I’ll have my usual, but make it a small one, please, Ronnetta. Go easy on the gin. What was it you wanted to ask me? Bob mentioned something about a favour.”
Their drinks poured and ice added with tongs from a plastic ice bucket, Ronnetta handed Alice her tumbler and settled herself in the chair opposite. Ten years older than her drinks cabinet, Ronnetta was just as showy and unrestrained. She was dressed in black leggings with an oversized red mohair sweater belted at her waist. Black high-heeled shoes were trimmed with two red bows. Alice had never seen her in flat shoes. Even for cutting the small patch of lawn at the back of her house, Ronnetta wore high-heeled slingbacks. The style Nazis would claim that for her age she wore too much jewellery and too much make-up. Her long nails—her pride and joy—were the real thing and were carefully manicured and varnished every other day, and by Ronnetta herself. As she repeatedly told Alice, she wasn’t about to entrust her precious nails to some gum-chewing, clueless girl who would cover them with plastic monstrosities quick as a flash. In the year that Alice had known her neighbour, she had never once seen those nails unpainted. Today they were red, in keeping with her outfit. Her real name was Veronica but it had been shortened to Ronnie as a child and then later in life she became Ronnetta. The name certainly suited her.
“I’ve been let down by one of my girls,” Ronnetta said after Alice had taken a sip of her gin and tonic, “and I was wondering if you could help me out. I need someone tomorrow. Sorry it’s such short notice.” She crossed her thin legs, got herself even more comfortable. “How’re you fixed?”
“What kind of a job is it this time?”
“Cleaner, but there’s a possibility that there could be a bit of housekeeping thrown in.”
“And how many times a week would I be needed?”
“That’s up to the client really. I said to the chap who’s organized it all on behalf of the client that we’d play it by ear, see how things go. I only saw the house for the first time yesterday after I’d been sent the key, but I can tell you it’s big. The poor man will be rattling around in it like a pea in a drum. At least that means the cleaning should be minimal. You’ll have to do his shopping, though. He doesn’t drive.”
“What about cooking?”
“I don’t think you’ll be expected to do that.”
Alice considered Ronnetta’s request. Since Ronnetta had started her cleaning agency, going from just two women from the village who worked for her to having a team of more than twenty to handle the extra services offered, Alice had often helped her neighbour out when she’d been let down. It wasn’t that she needed the money; it was more a matter of enjoying the opportunity to poke about in someone else’s life. “How long will you need me for?” she asked.
“The job itself is open-ended at the moment. But I’d only need you for the next week or two. By then I’ll have found a replacement for the girl who’s messed me about. Usual wages apply.” She added these last words with a crinkly-eyed smile and a jangle of bangles as she raised her glass to her lips.
“Go on then, why not? It looks like I’m in for a quiet fortnight anyway. What time do I have to be on parade tomorrow?”
“Is it here in the village?”
“On the outskirts, on the Matlock road. It’s very remote. Real back of beyond stuff, half a mile from the main road. Not a single neighbour on the doorstep. I’ll get the address for you.”
While Ronnetta was out of the room, Alice took a long, thoughtful sip of her drink. Outskirts of Stonebridge. On the Matlock road. What were the chances? A huge place with not a single neighbour? It sounded very like Cuckoo House.
“Here you are,” Ronnetta said when she returned and handed over a slip of paper to Alice. “The client is a Mr. Shannon and he’s staying at Cuckoo House. Have you heart of it? You always seem to know everyone and everything round here.”
“It certainly rings a bell.”
Clayton had a thing about splashy taps.
He disliked the sudden hostility of them. There they sat, as innocent as you like, just waiting for their moment when they could take the uninitiated by surprise. Strange houses always had more than their fair share of such taps. Along with toilets that had their own mysterious way of flushing. Fail to unlock the secret code and you could be in there for hours frantically pumping the handle trying to get rid of the evidence of your visit.
This house in particular had some viciously splashy taps, the sort that knew no half measures; they were either off or gushing like a geyser in all directions. The tap he’d just encountered had produced a force of water that was so powerful it had bounced off the basin and soaked him comprehensively.
One day he would get to the bottom of why. Was it all about water pressure? Or plain old ineptitude on the part of plumbers the world over? It was a mystery. But then so much of life was, to him. Never more so than now when everything felt like a monumental uphill struggle. No matter what he did, nothing seemed to go right for him these days. He was tired of it. Tired of the black cloud hanging over him. When would it ever end?
He dried his hands and gave his sweater, scarf and jeans a halfhearted pat, then went back into the bedroom. Out of a choice of seven bedrooms, he’d picked one that wasn’t the largest, but it had an interesting windowed turret in the furthest corner of the room. It also had a panoramic view of the garden and a more extensive view of a whole lot of nothing. The nothingness was green, hilly and sodden. Wet and depressingly dreary, it was pure hillbilly country. He could understand why Glen had said it would be the perfect place to lie low.
Glen had phoned him late last night, just as Clayton had given up ever figuring out how to switch on the boiler and inject some warmth into the place. “You’ve arrived, then?” Glen had said. “Everything all right?”
“No! Everything is not all right! The boiler doesn’t work, I’m dying of cold and there’s nothing to eat. Other than what I picked up on the train. And I ate that last night.”
“Don’t complain, Clay. With only twenty-four hours’ notice I’ve found you a house with furniture, electricity, water, even the Internet. So yes, feel free to go ahead and call me Mr. Wonderful. Just don’t expect me to throw in room service as well.”
“Tell me again about these friends of yours. What kind of people are they that want to live in this back of beyond place? I swear my nearest neighbour must be at least ten miles away.”
“I’ve known Craig and Anthea for years. In fact I was at school with Craig. He used to be in financial services, had his own business here in London, sold it for a killing and moved up there for a change of lifestyle.”
“And presumably they came to their senses and hightailed it out of here. Where’ve they gone?”
“They spend the winter months in warmer climes; they’ve bought a place in the Caribbean. As I said to you before, be glad they have. Stonebridge will be the perfect place for you to lie low. And remember, they’re letting you stay there as a favour to me. Don’t let me down. You’ve trashed your career; please don’t trash their home in a fit of pique as well. Oh, and don’t forget, the cleaning agency I’ve arranged to take care of things for you is sending someone round in the morning. About eleven, I think. Be nice to whoever it is. You’ll be totally dependent on the person they send.”
“So that’s two things I have to remember. One: I must not trash the house, and two: I must be nice to the cleaner. Anything else?”
“Yes. Sort your head out. And when you’ve done that, try doing some writing. After all, what else are you going to do up there?”
Good bloody question, Clayton had thought. “Is there anything happening down there I should know about?”
“What does that mean?”
“What do you mean, what does that mean?”
“I mean, is there something that you think I shouldn’t know about?”
“What, like trivial stuff? Like I’ve been given tickets for the premiere of the new Collin Farrell and Daniel Craig movie?”
“Why would I want to know that?”
“I don’t know. You started this.”
“Look, just tell me, is there anything being said about me that I should or shouldn’t know about?”
“But if I think you shouldn’t know about it, I’d hardly tell you, would I?”
“JUST TELL ME!”
“There’s stuff. Yes. But I really don’t think you should know about it.”
He’d ended the call exhausted.
• • •
At twenty minutes past eleven, Clayton gave up waiting for the sound of the doorbell and decided to make himself a cup of coffee. He turned on the tap and water immediately bounced off the rim of the kettle and shot up into his face and down his dried-out front.
That was when he heard the doorbell. Two loud, demanding rings. Not a polite little ring—yoo-hoo, I’m here!—but two bossy intrusive rings—Oi, you in there, get your sorry arse to the door!He banged the kettle down and traversed the mile to the front door.
“You’re late,” he said, wiping his face with his scarf. “Timekeeping not your speciality, I take it?”
For a moment the girl, swamped in a thick padded jacket with the hood up, didn’t say anything. She just stood there in the porch, sheltering from the rain with her lips pursed tightly shut. Her eyes, though, were darting about, looking beyond and around him, as if she were casing the joint.
“I sorry for late,” she said eventually. “I lose myself. You going to keep me here on doorstep all day, mister? Why you covered in water? You been out in rain?”
He frowned at the foreign accent. That was all he needed, a lippy Polish cleaner. There again she didn’t look Polish. Romanian or Bulgarian perhaps. Now that she’d pushed back the hood of her jacket, he could see her hair was long and wavy and very dark brown. As dark as her eyes which, now they had stopped darting about, he realized were assessing him. Her stare was disconcertingly direct. “I was making some coffee,” he said. “The tap, it—” He stopped short. Why in hell’s name was he explaining himself to a complete stranger? She was here to keep house for him, not to interrogate him.
She shrugged and armed with a plethora of cleaning equipment, she stepped inside. “Thank you. A cup of coffee before I start working very hard for you. Thank you, mister.”
He closed the door, wishing she was on the other side of it. “Are you Polish?” he asked.
The dark assessing eyes leapt to his. “How many languages you speak?”
He silently groaned. Great. Her English wasn’t up to much. “I asked if you were Polish,” he said, this time more loudly, his words clearly and slowly enunciated.
“And I said, how many languages you speak?”
“Oh, so mister who no speak anything but English thinks I am speaking Polish. Well, clean out ears, mister.”
Stunned at her rudeness, his jaw dropped. The cheeky little strumpet! He said, “I didn’t say that. All I meant was that yousoundPolish.”
“Well, I not Polish. Not Polish at all. You insult me. This way to kitchen?”
He chased after her down the stone-flagged corridor. This wouldn’t do. Glen would have to ring the agency and arrange for someone else to come. He wasn’t going to stand for this sort of behaviour. He caught up with her. “I think there’s been a mistake,” he tried. “The agency must have sent you to the wrong house.”
She turned and stared at him. “No mistake, mister. This is Cuckoo House. I am Katya. All is correct.”
He searched again for a way out. “And you’re here in the UK legally? I don’t want any trouble.”
She skewered him with a fierce look. “You read too much newspaper shit.”
He scoffed. “I assure you I do no such thing. I wouldn’t wipe my arse with a single one of those rags.”
“And don’t get no funny ideas about me doing that for you, mister.” She wagged a finger at him. “You go to toilet on your own.” She turned her back on him, shook off her coat and began sorting noisily through her collection of cloths and cleaning products, setting them out on the table where the remains of his supper from last night still lay—several plastic sandwich packets and two cans of Red Bull.
He walked round to the other side of the table, using it as a barrier. “So if you’re not from Poland, where are you from? Romania?”
“Does it matter where I from?”
“I’m just trying to be polite.”
“Well, you not polite. You rude. You very rude man.”
“You think it’s an insult for someone to enquire about your cultural background? And if you don’t mind me saying, your reaction to me thinking you were Polish smacks of racism.”
She looked up sharply. “What’s that you say? You want to smack me? Let me tell you, mister. One smack from you and I report you to police! I have my rights.”
He put his hands up. “Whoa!That’s not what I said.” Choosing his words with extra care, he added, “I think it might be better if the agency sends someone who can speak English properly. It would be easier all round. Don’t you agree?”
“Now you accuse me of being stupid. Mister, I plenty smart enough. You will have job keeping up with me.”
“Yes, really. I am very clever. My brain goes whir, whir, all day long.”
Clayton could believe it. Her tongue, too. “Tell me,” he said, no longer caring whether he offended her, “does your great big yapper ever stop?”
She looked at him blankly. She had a quirky face, he decided, wide cheekbones and a small pointy chin. Almost pixie-like. “Do you ever stop talking, is what I asked,” he said.
Her lips curved into a faint smile. “I know what you ask. I was proving you wrong.”
“Mister, you really are as stupid as you look. I was proving I can stop my big yapper any time I choose. And please, I like my coffee with milk. No sugar.”
Clayton gave up.Stupid!She had actually called him stupid. Didn’t she know who was paying her wages? He went over to the kettle. “And when does the mothership come back for you?” he muttered under his breath as he risked the tap again.
“Nothing wrong with my hearing, mister. I no alien. And if you want the truth, I am from Latvia. You even hear of my country?”
• • •
It was his appalling rudeness that had set Alice off. That and her apprehension about being back at Cuckoo House. She had come close to telling Ronnetta she had changed her mind about taking on the job, and the reason why, but curiosity had got the better of her. Why not go back? What harm could it do? More to the point, if she were honest, wasn’t it what she’d always wanted to do one day?
But undoubtedly she had caused quite a lot of harm by the looks of things. Ronnetta was due a massive apology. She had messed up this job in grand style. She had given the client—Mr. Shannon—every reason to complain and demand someone else to take her place, preferably one with a civil tongue in her head.
It wasn’t the first time she had adopted a different persona when she helped Ronnetta out—not that Ronnetta knew that. It was the actress in her. Occasionally she dressed for the part. Sometimes she wore a blonde wig and pretended she was Astrid from Dusseldorf, here in England to learn zee goot English. She’d had some fun with Astrid. But Katya was new. She had been devised very much on the spur of the moment. In fact, Alice was rather pleased with her latest creation.
It had been fun putting such a rude man in his place and she would make no apology for that. As though it was a major task he had been set, she had watched him clatter ineptly about the kitchen making the coffee. Tall and thin, he seemed all angles. She wondered if he always looked so crumpled and angry. Interestingly his eyes looked younger than the rest of him. The coffee finally made, he had taken himself off, leaving her, he’d said pointedly, to get on with her work.
If the kitchen—which was nothing like she remembered—was anything to go by, excluding the isolated mess on the table, the house appeared clean enough. She hoped he wasn’t going to prove to be one of those mucky types, incapable of doing anything without making a mess.
It was difficult to pin an exact age on him; he could be mid-forties or early fifties. But oddly, there was something familiar about him. Maybe he just reminded her of someone. He’d look a lot better if he tidied himself up, though. A shave and a brush through his thick unruly hair would be a good start. He could also do with losing the attitude and lightening up. And while he was about it, sorting out his dress sense wouldn’t go amiss either. The tatty old pullover he was wearing was fraying at the cuffs; it had definitely seen better days. As had his jeans—one of the back pockets was ripped and hanging off. And the scarf around his neck was distinctly moth-eaten. Overall he cut an eccentric and shambolic figure. She could almost feel sorry for him.
She took a sip of the coffee he’d made, winced at the sweetness of it—damn the man, he’d added sugar—and dismissed him from her mind. She had more important things to think of. Like having a good snoop round. To establish, after all this time, exactly how she really felt being back where she had grown up.
And where better to start than upstairs in her bedroom?
But first, how about some heat? The house was bone-numbingly cold. She went over to the nearest radiator and touched it. Mm…if she was going to spend any amount of time here, there would have to be some changes. Mr. Shannon might like the idea of freezing to death, but she did not.
• • •
As he warmed his hands on his mug of coffee, Clayton considered his latest attempt at his obituary on his laptop. This time it revolved around being found frozen to death by a crazy Latvian housekeeper.
The room he had retreated to was directly beneath the bedroom he had chosen and he was sitting at an antique writing desk in the window of the turret. He gazed disconsolately out of the window. It was still raining. The sky was still grey. It still depressed the hell out of him. If Glen had thought this was a suitable place for him to get his head sorted while lying low, he’d made a big mistake. It only added to his problems. It compacted the realization just how pathetic his life had become.
Somewhere in the faraway distance, he could hear Katya moving about upstairs. He’d got his own back on her. Using the sachet of sugar he had pinched on the train yesterday—he never could resist helping himself to those perfectly shaped little packets, even though he never took sugar in his own drinks—he had added it to her coffee. Served her right. Small victories. They were not to be knocked.
He had made up his mind. Just as soon as she had gone shopping and stocked the cupboards and fridge with food, he’d call Glen and insist he speak to the agency and demand someone else to shop and clean for him. He could just imagine Glen’s response. He’d probably say having a foreigner as his only point of contact with the outside world was ideal. It meant she wouldn’t have a clue who he was.
A scratching noise behind him had him spinning round in his chair.
He cocked his head and listened hard. There it was again. Not mice, he concluded. And not a scratching noise as he’d thought, but a ticking.
It was the gurgle that did it. He knew then what the sound was. It was the sound of trapped air.
Was it possible?
Had Katya succeeded where he had failed?
He went over to one of the two radiators in the room.Yes!Heat. Glorious heat. The girl was a miracle worker. He wasn’t going to die of hypothermia after all.CHAPTER FOUR
Of all the bedrooms he could have picked, Mr. Shannon had chosen Alice’s old bedroom. But like the kitchen downstairs, which was sleek and showroom-smart with shiny granite work surfaces and state-of-the-art appliances, it bore very little resemblance to the bedroom of Alice’s childhood.
When it had been Alice’s room, it had contained an eclectic mix of rugs and cumbersome furniture, including her great aunt Eliza’s rocking chair. Alice had spent hours rocking in it, either lost in a book or simply daydreaming while gazing out of the windows. Thanks to her father, who had never been short on whimsical ideas when it came to presents, she had had a small wooden stool and a spinning wheel and she used to sit at it in the turret and pretend that she was Rapunzel waiting for her prince to appear.
As an only child she had learned from a young age to lose herself in her imagination and would often write, direct and star in her own one-woman shows. Just occasionally she would perform for her parents or the au pair, but her regular audience consisted of her collection of spellbound dolls and teddy bears.
At the end of her bed there had been a large wooden trunk that had travelled the world with Great Aunt Eliza. It had ended its life as Alice’s dressing-up box and most of its contents—tailored dress suits, floaty evening dresses, scarves, beads, broaches, hats, shoes and handbags—had belonged to a woman that Alice only remembered from photographs. She couldn’t have been very big because when Alice was only ten years old, Great Aunt Eliza’s shoes fitted her perfectly.
As well as a dressing-up box, Alice also had an intriguing store of props to use in her one-woman shows. This was mostly down to her father, who had an obsessive eye for anything of a fanciful or theatrical nature. “I came across this the other day and thought you might like it, Alice,” he would say. One day he presented her with an ornate birdcage with a stuffed mynah bird inside. It was a week before Alice discovered there was a key under the base of the cage and that when she turned it, the mynah bird moved its head, opened its beak and sang. Other “finds” had included the spinning wheel and stool, a top hat, a Russian copy of Leo Tolstoy’sAnna Karenina, a false beard, an old-fashioned telephone, a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe, a battered dinner gong, and a scruffy pair of red tap shoes, which her father soon regretted giving her.
To Alice’s disappointment the tap shoes only fitted her for a few months. But during those months she drove her parents to distraction by endlessly tap-tap-tapping her way round the house. She loved the noise the metal taps made, especially on the wooden floorboards in her bedroom. She would roll back the threadbare rugs and dance and dance. If her parents were away she would seize her opportunity and dance until her legs ached and she was doubled over with a stitch. But if her father was home, he would crash into her room after only a few minutes, throw her over his shoulder and threaten to chuck her down the stairs if she made any more noise. She never actually thought he would, but on one occasion, the au pair—a quiet, studious girl from Stockholm who had only been with them a few days—thought he was serious. At the sight of Alice being dangled over the banisters, she burst into tears with fright. She packed her bags and left that very evening in a taxi, saying she couldn’t stay in such a mad house a moment longer.
Untidiness was a sign of a creative mind, so Alice’s mother maintained. Which seemed to be the family excuse for the chaotic state of the house, a chaos that guaranteed nothing could ever be found when it was needed. Her parents would frequently drive themselves wild looking for their car keys or a pen. Shrieking at the top of their voices, they would accuse each other of moving whatever it was they couldn’t find. Invariably it was Alice who would find what they were looking for. Instead of thanking her, they would suspect that she had been playing a game with them, of hiding the kitchen scissors or the TV licence that urgently needed paying, merely to gain their attention.
So much for Cuckoo House when she was growing up, when it had been a casual, messy and informal environment.
Under its current ownership, it looked and felt a very different house. Alice couldn’t imagine anyone threatening to throw a nuisance tap-dancing child down the stairs in these immaculate surroundings.
The walls of her old bedroom were decorated with a subtly patterned cream and blue wallpaper and the pale-blue carpet was fitted and invitingly soft underfoot. The furniture was antique, elegant and highly polished; it reeked of good taste and sophistication, and of order. Most striking of all was the enormous bed with its intricately carved headboard. Not so striking was that Mr. Shannon hadn’t bothered to cover the duvet or pillows.
After a brief search, she found what she was looking for in a large chest of drawers: fresh bed linen. She began making up the bed, allowing herself once again to explore her secret store of memories.
One of her earliest memories was when her father had returned home from one of his many trips abroad. He had tiptoed into her room and woken her with a scratchy kiss. At first she hadn’t recognized him because of his beard, and she’d let out a startled cry and buried herself deep beneath the bedclothes. He’d laughed and tugged her out and when she’d looked at him closely she could see that he wasn’t a stranger come to steal her after all. He’d given her a toy koala and a wooden snake that moved like the real thing.
As a naturalist photographer of some repute, Bruce Barrett was frequently away for months at a time. His work was always being featured in theNational Geographicmagazine as well as the Sunday supplements. When he was home he was more often than not at the top of the house in his darkroom. There was no guessing what kind of mood he’d be in when he opened the door and emerged blinking mole-like into the light. He could be sulky and withdrawn, or waging war on anything or anyone who was unfortunate enough to get in his way. Other times he had a ridiculous sense of the dramatic and would dress up as a pirate, complete with wooden peg leg and eye patch. Waving a fake cutlass he would chase Alice round the house until her giddy excitement tipped over into high-pitched squealing terror and she’d be shaking and screaming for him to stop. He never knew when enough was enough, that a small child could only take so much. There were other times, though, when he would sit for hours at a time quietly reading to her. She often fell asleep in his arms.
A typical way for him to emerge from his darkroom was to slide down the banisters and bellow at the top of his voice, “What’s a man to do round here to get anything to eat?”
“Oh, do stop crashing around like a five-year-old,” Alice’s mother would say when he burst into her study. “I’m trying to write my column. Now go away.”
“But I’m hungry,” he would complain. “I haven’t eaten for twenty-four hours.”
“You have no one to blame but yourself. I’m sure if you asked Thalia nicely she would rustle something up for you. Now go away and leave me in peace.”
Thalia, a Greek girl from Athens, had been one of many young au pairs who came to Cuckoo House. They rarely stayed long. Some said they couldn’t cope with the isolation, or the unconventional way the household was run. Others, the prettier ones, had a different reason for leaving.
Alice’s mother, Dr. Barbara Barrett, was a psychiatrist and in her husband’s opinion—an opinion he loved to taunt her with—she had turned her back on a respectable profession to pursue the dark arts of popular psychology in the name of slapstick fame.
Her change of career happened quite by accident. After one of her patients, a man who worked for the BBC, put in a good word for her, she became a media family and relationship expert. By the time Alice was ten, Dr. Barbara Barrett was writing a weekly column for a national newspaper and appeared regularly on the television and radio. She was also an agony aunt for a monthly women’s magazine. Yet for all her so-called professional expertise, Barbara Barrett had no handle on her own domestic situation. She regularly forgot Alice’s birthday and left most of her care to whichever au pair was currently employed. Her husband was beyond her comprehension, or control, and too often when she was preoccupied with work she left him dangerously to his own devices.
Whilst it was true that two such larger than life characters had a volatile love-hate relationship and couldn’t cope with each other on a full-time basis, it was also true that they couldn’t live without each other. Any agony aunt worth her salt would have told them to take greater care of each other. Had they done so, who knew how differently life would have been at Cuckoo House in the years that followed?CHAPTER FIVE
Another day, another dollar.
As the saying goes. Who first said it and when, Clayton didn’t have a clue. Or the slightest care. All that was of interest to him was that he’d eaten well last night, he’d slept the sleep of the dead, he was warm, it had stopped raining, the sun was shining and the coffee was made. The only dilemma to the day was whether to have two fried eggs with his sausages and bacon, or one. He tossed an egg in the air as if flipping a coin for his answer and caught it deftly with one hand. Oh, what the hell, he’d have two.
He cracked the eggs into the crowded sizzling pan then spooned hot oil over them. Ooh, yeah, life was good. “What’s that you say?” he asked himself aloud. “Clayton my man, I said life was kickassingGOOD!”
Clayton often held conversations with himself. He used to quip that it was the only way he could participate in an intelligent discussion. If that was a sign of madness, well, he’d crossed that line a long time ago. Truth was, he couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t talked to himself.
When Stacey used to walk into his office and found him chuntering away to himself, she would say he was madder than a box of monkeys. That was in the days when she said it as an endearment and with a smile on her face. When she accused him of lunacy towards the end of their relationship, the smile had been replaced with an expression of disgust and loathing. “You need help, Clayton,” she had said on more than one occasion. “Professional help.”
He switched off the gas, tipped the frying pan with well-practised precision and slid his breakfast onto a warmed plate. “There, the perfect breakfast.” He took the plate over to the table and sat down. He was a man transformed. A man who was happy to know that for the next thirty minutes of his life, all was right in the world.
He tucked into his breakfast with relish. A piece of sausage poised on the prongs of his fork, he held it an inch or two from his mouth. He smiled. “Come to Daddy.” In it went. He chewed on it slowly, savouring the texture—crumbly yet reassuringly meaty. “Yeah baby! That’s what I’m talking about!Dee-licious.” Next he tried a piece of bacon. It was as good as the sausage. “My compliments to the chef. And to the lippy Katya for doing my shopping.”
“Local food,” she had explained when she had returned from the shops. “Organic meat. From Mr. Butcher in village. I no buy you rubbish.”
For all their getting off on the wrong foot yesterday, he was grateful for what Katya had done for him. She had shown him how the heating system worked and had bought him everything he’d put on his shopping list, plus other things he hadn’t given a thought so, such as toilet paper and tissues. She had suggested that for the time being he should use the Armstrongs’ washing powder, dishwasher tablets and washing up liquid and replace them when required. He had given her a wad of cash and convinced that she would try to con him, he’d checked all the items off against the till receipts when she’d left. But everything was just as it should be.
He had decided not to make that call to Glen. For now, the girl could stay. Her next scheduled visit was for the day after tomorrow. She had offered to cook for him, but not wanting the bother of having to make conversation with her for more than was necessary, he’d said he was quite capable of cooking for himself.
Stacey would have sneered at that. “You, cook?” she would have said. “Don’t make me laugh.”
How he had ever got sucked into Stacey’s gravitational forcefield, he didn’t know. He used to say that they were such opposites that they’d met at their polar parts coming in the opposite direction. Thinking this now, it somehow didn’t make the same sense it had then. If any.
Actually, he knew exactly how they had been drawn together and who was responsible: Lucky Bazza. Bazza had got himself a new date lined up and had suggested Clayton and the date’s best friend join them at the pub to make a foursome. This was back in 1994, in the days when they were sharing a flat together in Clapham and were struggling to make ends meet. To supplement their meagre earnings from their writing, Bazza was working in a bar and Clayton had a job in a seedy hotel as a night porter. He spent most of those nights—when he wasn’t turning a blind eye to questionable women coming and going—working on a script. They were both twenty-nine and beginning to think they had hit a dead end, when suddenly things were finally looking up for them: their script had been accepted by the BBC.
They had been writing together since their days at university, mostly gags and sketches for up and coming comedians. They had never felt the lure of the stage or screen themselves, preferring to write for others. Their goal was to write situation comedy, but not just any old sitcom; they wanted to claim the crown of Best Ever Sitcom. Which they did. They racked up record ratings and made stars of the actors who, until the pilot show had gone out, had been unknowns. Now they were household names with two of the central characters currently making films in Hollywood. Clayton didn’t believe those writers, actors or programme makers who claimed retrospectively that they had no idea they’d had a potential hit on their hands. He and Bazza hadknown. They had known right from the outset that what they’d written was bloody good.
The fourth and final series ofJoking Asidehad been broadcast five years ago and yet only last year it had come out top again in a poll conducted by theRadio Timesto establish the best ever sitcom. Holding the hefty piece of glassware aloft at the award ceremony at the Grosvenor Hotel in London, Clayton had mumbled drunkenly into the microphone, “How do you like them bananas, Ricky Gervais?”
Bazza hadn’t been able to attend; he’d been over in Los Angeles sucking up to some big studio boss, but doubtless he would have made a far more eloquent and self-effacing acceptance speech. But then, had Bazza been around to accept the award, Clayton wouldn’t have gone within a mile of the place. He and Bazza hadn’t spoken for more than two years. Their relationship, as Bazza repeatedly referred to their writing partnership in the countless interviews he gave, had lost its creative spark. That wasn’t all it had lost.
Normally only too quick to attend a lavish do of celebrity backpatting, Stacey hadn’t accompanied Clayton to the Grosvenor; she had stayed at home, saying she didn’t want to be seen in public with him when, once again, he would make an idiot of himself. But Glen had been there. Through thick and thin, his agent had always been there for Clayton.
It had meant a lot to him that when Bazza made the unilateral decision to end their writing partnership—claiming he felt stifled and needed to spread his creative wings, no hard feelings, blah, blah—Glen, who had represented them both, stuck with Clayton. It was a decision he must have regretted at least a million times a day ever since. Had he chosen Bazza, he would have earned much more than he did with Clayton. Not that Clayton was hard up. Far from it. He had more than enough money. The royalties fromJoking Asideshowed no sign of drying up. He had lost count how many countries the series was shown in around the world and with DVD sales continually on the up, even if he never wrote another successful script again, he would be comfortable for the rest of his life.
But he wanted to write. He missed the buzz that writing used to give him. His life felt meaningless without a script in front of him. It was his identity. And it was thanks to Bazza that he couldn’t write. He had taken it badly when Bazza had ended the partnership. At first he had thought it was a joke, that his old mate was playing a number on him. He had even checked their office for hidden cameras, certain that Bazza was setting him up for some kind of funny-ha-ha candid TV moment. When the truth finally hit Clayton, that Bazza wasn’t mucking about, he was gutted. To his eternal shame, he had resorted to begging Bazza to reconsider. “But we’re the golden ticket,” he’d said. “We’ve got a licence to print money right now. Why would you give that up?”
“It’s not about the money,” Bazza had said. “I want to write new things.”
“Then let’s do it together. Just as we’ve always done.”
“No, I want to write on my own. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time. I’m sorry, Clayton, it’s over. We’ve gone as far as we can together. We had a good run, but let’s look to the future now.”
In the days, weeks and months that followed, Clayton swung from high optimism that he was free to write the best stuff he’d ever written—now that he wasn’t carrying such a useless co-writer—to feeling adrift and incapable of writing a single line of dialogue. It wasn’t long before he ran dry of optimism and all he had left was a debilitating fear that he would never be able to write again.
Then his parents died, one after the other in obscenely quick succession. One minute they were both alive and nagging him to visit more often; the next his father died of a heart attack and two months later his mother suffered a massive stroke and died a week later. It was then that he discovered that while they had both been supremely proud of what he had achieved, they hadn’t trusted it. To them, it hadn’t seemed like a proper job. After his mother’s funeral, while he’d been staying at the house where he’d grown up, he had found a building society book. It was a joint account and it had over four hundred and fifty thousand pounds in it. Every month, regular as clockwork, a cheque had been paid into the account. It was the exact same amount Clayton had sent his parents every month to provide them with a bit of luxury, holidays, a new car, new clothes, that kind of thing. But here was the evidence that they hadn’t spent a penny of his success. Many times he had offered to buy them a new house, somewhere in the country or by the sea, but they’d refused, saying there was nothing wrong with the house they had. There had been a handwritten note contained within the pages of the account book—written by his mother—and it said that when they died, the money they had saved was for Clayton, just in case things hadn’t worked out for him.
If there had been any uncertainty before that he was experiencing a phase of writer’s block, losing his parents and squaring up to his own mortality ensured there was not a shred of doubt from then on.
Meanwhile, Lucky Bazza’s writing career went from strength to strength. If they had once been the crowned kings of comedy writing, Lucky Bazza was now the golden boy who couldn’t put a foot wrong. While Clayton was deeply mired in a state of inertia, Bazza had written a film script for a major box-office hit and had thrown himself into trying to save Africa, along with just about every other comedian, actor, writer and musician in the country.
Never mind saving Africa, Clayton had his work cut out saving himself!
There was no getting away from it; one person’s success is another person’s failure. Clayton had tried hard to pretend that Lucky Bazza’s success didn’t bother him, but the truth was it hurt like hell. He had believed it to be the bitterest pill of all to swallow. But then Stacey left him for Bazza.
Throughout this dark, depressing period of his life, and presumably in an effort to raise his flagging spirits, Stacey had kept up a steady onslaught of derogatory comments. “You’re not funny at all,” she complained to him one day. “I can’t remember the last time you made me laugh.”
He couldn’t remember ever telling her that he was funny. Why would he? Why would he go around saying he was funny?Who, me? Oh, I’m the funniest man on the planet. Wind me up and watch me go. I’ll have you in stitches for hours. Comedy doesn’t work that way. Everyone knows that. Everyone except for Stacey, maybe.
The way he saw it, being funny was a disability. It dragged a person down with the sheer weight of expectation that it fostered. “Go on, then, make me laugh,” was the expectation of anyone who met him for the first time. It was a hell of a weight to lug around.
When it became obvious that Clayton was not going to earn his agent any money from fresh writing, Glen began getting him appearances on panel shows for TV and radio. He rapidly made a name for himself as the grumpy, dry-witted, mordant guest. Then one week when he was appearing on a topical news show, he let rip with a vociferous attack on the guest host, a sickening man with a squeaky-clean image and an ego the size of Texas. Clayton couldn’t abide him. Off camera, the squeaky-clean image was anything but squeaky-clean. “Let me stop you right there, Baby Doll,” Clayton had said when the host, grinning from squeaky-clean ear to squeaky-clean ear, had started to describe Clayton as a one-hit wonder who couldn’t write without his co-writer, the much more talented Barry Osborne.
Clayton’s diatribe made the headlines the next day and, ever since, when an example of a truly excruciating on-screen moment was called for, the clip of him outing the host as a coke head with a penchant for dressing up in baby-doll nightdresses whilst indulging in sex with men twenty years his junior was shown. The man’s proclivities were well known in certain showbiz circles, and Clayton didn’t regret his outburst, or the man’s subsequent downfall from prime-time television.
For weeks afterwards Clayton was hot property. Every newspaper and chat show host wanted to interview him, probably in the hope that he would let rip with some other salacious exposé. He was glad when the circus left town and the telephone stopped ringing.
Stacey wasn’t so happy. He had never been interested in being Mr. Showbiz, but Stacey had loved the razzamatazz of an opening night or the chance of being snapped by the paparazzi coming out of a restaurant or a club late at night. He’d played along initially, knowing that it pleased her, but when they’d reached the sniping Heather versus Macca stage of their relationship, he told her he would sooner stay at home playing Scrabble while having his toenails systematically ripped out at the roots. Stacey’s response was to accuse him of being small-minded.
Later, when she announced that she was leaving him for Bazza, she said his small-mindedness wasn’t his only area of deficiency. Small in the trouser department? That was news to him. But apparently, Lucky Bazza was gloriously endowed. Funny, because as far as Clayton could recall from the many side-by-side urinal situations they’d shared, Lucky Bazza hadn’t shown any outstanding tendencies.
When he thought about it, gravitational forcefields were odd things. He had been sucked into Bazza’s life, then Stacey’s, and now here he was, drawn into the unlikeliest of situations; holed up miles from anywhere pretending his name was Shannon, and with only a cheeky Latvian housekeeper for intermittent company.
Once again he was hot property, but this time it was because he’d made a spectacularly stupid mistake. This time the press was baying for his blood. He was a hated man. He was a national disgrace. Probably right now there were MPs demanding for capital punishment to be brought back for people like him.CHAPTER SIX
“You’re not cross with me, then?”
Ronnetta laughed. “Cross with you? I wish I’d been there to witness your performance! As well as all your previous ones. I really had no idea what you’d been getting up to behind my back. Certainly no clients have ever said anything to me in the past. Although when I come to think about it, there was one woman who mentioned something about how efficient you’d been; that it was typical of where you were from. I didn’t give it another thought.”
“But what if Mr. Shannon complains to you?” Alice pressed. “What if he says I didn’t know my place, that I was rude to him? Which I was. Take my word for it; I was breathtakingly rude to him.”
“Stop beating yourself up. If he was going to complain, don’t you think he would have done so by now?”
It was a good point. Most people who have a beef about something usually complain straight away. They like nothing better than to make a huge fuss while they’re still steamed up. But twenty-four hours had passed since Alice’s encounter with Mr. Shannon, so maybe Ronnetta was right and he’d decided not to make a fuss. Was he a classic example of having a bark worse than his bite? He had seemed happy enough yesterday when she’d left him. She’d known, however, just absolutely known, that the first thing he would have done after she’d driven off was to check the till receipts she had given him, to see whether a bolshy Latvian had had the nerve to rob him.
“What interests me more,” Ronnetta said, leaning across her desk with a rattle of bangles and poking the air with a biro, “is what Mr. Shannon is doing here all on his own in a great big place like Cuckoo House. And why, I want to know, has someone else down in London made all the arrangements for his stay? What’s that all about? You don’t suppose he’s some kind of criminal, do you? Or how about an informant who’s in hiding? Maybe MI6 is behind this and Cuckoo House is a safe house for him.”
Alice laughed. “You’ve been watching too many episodes ofSpooks. If he was being hidden because he was in danger, do you suppose for one minute they’d allow a stranger to come in and clean for him?”
“Mm…perhaps not. So what was he like? Good-looking bloke? Single?” Ronnetta wiggled her eyebrows. “If yes to either of those last two questions, do you think he’d like some company? I’m sure I could make myself available.”
In her own words Ronnetta had been divorced since the Crimean War and whilst there had been many a romantic entanglement in the intervening years she had not yet found that special person to be Husband Number Two. The search was ongoing. “I’m not sure about his marital status or that he’s your type,” Alice said. “To be honest, I don’t see him as being anybody’s type. He’s got an attitude that could etch glass.”
“Haven’t we all at times? How old do you reckon?”
“That’s a tricky one.” Alice didn’t want to say outright that she thought Mr. Shannon was too young for Ronnetta, so instead she described him, scruffy clothes and all.
“He sounds like he needs someone to take him in hand,” Ronnetta said, slipping the biro between her lips and sucking on it—despite the hypnotherapy, she had yet to lose certain urges and habits. “I’m intrigued,” she added. “Keep me posted.”
The mobile on her desk rang; she picked it up to take the call. Alice took it as her cue to leave. They both had work to do. She quietly closed the door of Ronnetta’s office—a 9 Swift Corniche three-berth caravan parked in her back garden—and went home. A manuscript had arrived in the post that morning and Alice was eager to make a start on reading it.
She let herself in at the back door, put the kettle on and opened the jiffy bag that contained the manuscript for a new children’s book. The title of it was:Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire. It made her think of the conversation she’d just had with Ronnetta.
Alice hadn’t actually lied to her neighbour, but then nor had she been exactly fulsome with her confession regarding Katya. At no stage had she mentioned that she knew Cuckoo House, let alone admitted that she had grown up there. If for some reason that was now to come out, it would be rather embarrassing to say the least.
The trouble with telling lies, even small ones, or lies by omission, is that once you start, there seems no way to stop and it rapidly becomes an unbreakable habit. One way or another, Alice had been telling lies nearly all her adult life. She wasn’t a pathological liar—a crazy fantasist who couldn’t open her mouth without lying—it was more a matter of creating edited versions of the truth, of constructing separate universes within her own world in order to compartmentalize her life. She firmly believed there was a distinction between good and bad untruths and the ones she told were not designed to hurt anyone, merely to keep people out.
She had learned the art of crafting slight truths at the feet of two of the greatest technicians: her parents. Although it was always possible that there had been no learning process involved, it could be that the liar gene had been passed down to her. Just as she had inherited her mother’s wide cheekbones and small chin, perhaps she had been born with the gift of embroidering the truth to suit.
Typical untruths for Alice’s mother had been to lie about her age or to give the public the impression that her home life was other than it really was. As for Alice’s father, a man who had never seemed to have a real grasp on reality, anything went for truth as far as he was concerned.
As a child Alice had lost herself in colourful landscapes of make-believe where anything was possible, so what could be more natural than to do the same as an adult? This wasn’t as bad as it sounded; she only did it as a means to reinvent herself. Even then, not to the point that she was unrecognizable to herself. All she had done over the years was apply a light dusting of reinterpretation here and there.
Really, it was extraordinary how easy it was to make people think what you wanted them to think merely by glossing over the bits you didn’t want them to know. Another trick was to deflect any unwanted questions by inviting people to talk about themselves. In her experience people would much rather talk about themselves than listen to someone else droning on. Yes, she would say if she was pushed to explain herself, she had spent her childhood living in the area…Oh, you know, I did the usual thing of leaving home just as soon as I was old enough…no, no brothers or sisters… and sadly both parents now dead…but tell me about you; where did you grow up?
Keeping people at arm’s length was the easiest thing in the world to do. Allowing herself to be close to anyone was not so easy for Alice. Closeness meant being honest. It meant she would have to open herself up to another and allow that person to poke and pry. People were like that. If they sensed something out of the ordinary, they nibbled away at it until they had devoured the whole story. Of course, she could have saved herself a lot of bother by not coming back to the area. But what did they say about criminals always returning to the scene of the crime?
Two and a half years ago, when she was approaching her twenty- eighth birthday and yet another relationship had unravelled, she had felt alone and aimless. Sitting in her London flat in Earls Court, listening to the noisy party that was going on in the flat below her, life had suddenly seemed very bleak. Her non-stop party-loving Aussie neighbours had invited her to the party but seeing as her ex-boyfriend, a software designer from Sydney, was going to be there, she had declined. There had been a brief moment of fantasy during her relationship with Austin when she had imagined being whisked off to Sydney to start a new life with him. She had liked the idea of that. Living somewhere completely new. But Austin had pulled out of the relationship, saying he found her impossible to live with. He said he’d given up trying to understand whether she was joking or being straight with him. He had known her for more than a year, and other than locating her G-spot, he didn’t think he knew any more about her than when they’d first met. He said he was tired of searching for the key to unlock the real her. She’d told him he’d been reading too many women’s magazines. He’d told her he was moving out.
So that was that. A nice straightforward break up. It seemed to be her forte.
In this aimless state, she began to dream of the scenery of her childhood, the wide open spaces, the vast empty skies, the undulating hills and the sweeping stretches of moorland. She would find herself lingering over the dreams when she woke in the morning and would feel haunted for the rest of the day. She almost succeeded in resisting the beckoning call, and then she learned that her father was dead. That he had been dead for some years. The beckoning call became a screaming siren.
There was nothing else for it. She packed an overnight bag and headed north. Her plan was simple. She would visit Stonebridge safe in the knowledge that one look at it would be enough to convince her that her subconscious had been playing tricks on her. She would realize in an instant that it was the last place on earth she should move back to. She also believed that the visit would help resolve her feelings for her father.
It was a silly plan; there was only ever going to be one outcome. Sure enough, nine weeks later she moved into Dragonfly Cottage just five miles away from Cuckoo House. Her agent, Hazel, said that Alice couldn’t have made a smarter move as a new recording studio had just started operating on the outskirts of Nottingham and it would be an easy journey to undertake on a regular basis. What was more, if the owners were to be believed, it looked like the work would be plentiful.
Ha, ha! The Queen of New Beginnings triumphs again!CHAPTER SEVEN
Clayton had been busy.
In readiness for Katya’s visit he had been swotting up. She had accused him of knowing nothing about her country; well, today he’d show her. Unable to sleep last night, he’d gone online and read all he could about Latvia. He’d also looked up a few key words of vocabulary and using a language site and in response to a robotic woman’s voice, he had been practising his pronunciation. Nobody got away with making out he was a jackass by implying he was ignorant. No siree!
Perversely he was now looking forward to Katya’s arrival. His hands clasped behind his head, he leaned back in the chair and stared out of the window. He liked this room. If this was his house, this would be where he’d choose to write; it would be his den. It was home to nearly as many books as he possessed in his house down in London, so perhaps the owners, Glen’s friends, used it as a study. Or maybe they called it something grander: a library. Dotted about the room were framed photographs of the Armstrongs; it didn’t matter whether they were dressed for the ski slopes, a race course meeting, a tropical beach or an occasion that warranted a dinner jacket and a ball gown, they looked smug with happiness. It was enough to make Clayton feel ill.
Where he was sitting in the turreted area of the room, the windows looked directly out onto the front garden and in the distance, at the end of the long, straight drive he could see the white-painted metal gate and the trees that flanked it. The trees had lost nearly all of their leaves but the thick impenetrable hedge that ran the perimeter of the land to the front showed no sign of doing the same. It must be an evergreen hedge of some sort. Laurel? Rhododendron? He racked his brain to think what else it could be. It didn’t look coniferous. Holly? Beech? No, beech was deciduous. Any fool knew that. He scratched his chin and once again took himself by surprise at the feel of it. A week without shaving and he had developed quite a beard. Apart from when he’d been a student, when it was obligatory to sport a pretentiously goaty affair, he had never grown a proper beard before. Stacey wouldn’t have stood for it. He had only to go two days without shaving and she would turn her cheek away from him when he tried to kiss her. “Horrible,” she would say with a shudder, “go and shave.” He stroked his beard with exaggerated pleasure. “This is for you, Stacey!”
It was raining again. Perhaps that was how it was going to be; whenever it was a Katya day it would rain. Certainly there was something of the storm cloud about her.
So far he hadn’t put a foot outside of his prison walls. Not even yesterday when it was dry and sunny. Instead, he had explored the house spending time in each room, as if trying them for size. Every room was large and high-ceilinged and starting from the ridiculously over-sized entrance hall complete with chandelier was the room he was currently in and opposite was a dining room. Beyond were two sitting rooms—possibly one for relaxing in and the other, the larger of the two, for not relaxing in, for pretending to be something other than one’s natural self. At the back of the house was the kitchen and a collection of associated rooms—laundry, pantry and larder—and a general dumping area where a selection of outdoor coats hung on old-fashioned, black-painted metal pegs with an assortment of leather walking boots and green Wellingtons below. A wide staircase led up to four bedrooms and three bathrooms on the first floor and a smaller staircase gave access to a further three bedrooms and two more bathrooms.
His mother would have been hopelessly overawed by it. She would have crept about the house as if she had no right to be there. Dad, too, would have felt out of place and had one of his chippy turns. The pair of them had been bad enough when they used to come and stay with him and Stacey. “My, this is fancy,” Mum had said when she’d stepped over the threshold of the house in Fulham which he’d bought on the success of the first series ofJoking Aside. “Is it all yours?” she’d asked. “All of it? That’s never a cream carpet, is it? Oh, you’ll regret that.”
Stacey had seen to all the decorating and furnishing and for some obscure reason she had taken great pleasure in telling his parents just how much everything had cost. “All that on curtains?” Dad had exploded. “That’s how much I earn in a year!” Clayton had very nearly exploded as well. He’d had no idea curtains could cost so much. The only room Stacey hadn’t decorated or furnished was his office-cum-den. She had wanted to but he’d put his foot down. One of the few times he had.
At the end of the drive, he saw what looked like a red toy car stop at the gate. He checked his watch. Eleven o’clock. Katya was on time today. She got out of the car and he watched her open the gate, get back in her car, drive forward, get out, shut the gate, get back in the car, then drive slowly up the drive.
He drew a piece of paper towards him and quickly read through the vocabulary he’d been learning. No worries, he was word perfect. He pushed back his chair and stood up. “Prepare to be amazed and astonished, Katya,” he said aloud.
• • •
“Sveiki!” he greeted her at the door. “Ka jums klajas?”
From the expression on her face, he could see she really was amazed and astonished. Who wouldn’t be? He’d not only said hi, but had enquired after her health. He stood back to let her in. “Paldies par palidzibu,” he continued. He was showing off now, thanking her for coming.
She still had the same look on her face.
“I’ve been learning Latvian,” he said. “Aren’t you impressed?” Of course she was. He could see it in her eyes, and by the way she had put a finger to her top lip and her face was reddening. She was obviously touched that he’d gone to so much trouble. For some unaccountable reason, he felt touched that she was touched. But then her expression changed. She began to smile. Next thing she was giggling, a hand covering her mouth. “What?” he said. “What’s so funny?”
“Sorry, mister. Sorry for rude. But you just say big funny thing. You say you have sexy goat in bath.”
His jaw dropped.
She laughed some more. “I tell you for sure, I no clean bath if goat in it.”
“But I couldn’t have got it so wrong. I’ve…I’ve been practising.” He felt embarrassed at the admission. Far from impressing her he’d just made a fool of himself.No change there, then, he heard the irritating voice of Captain Sensible mutter inside his head.That’s what you get for showing off.
“Is good for you to learn new language but bad for me. I here to learn English. I no want to speak Latvian.”
“Oh,” he said, feeling flattened.
“English. Only English. You must speak good English to me so I learn well. One day I speak like Queen. Right, mister?”
“Oh,” he said again.
“Now I roll up sleeves and start work.” She sped off towards the kitchen. “Ooh,” she let out, “look at big mess mister has made here. You make much work for me.”
Clayton left her to it. He closed the door on the room he’d claimed as his study, took out his list of vocabulary and switched on his laptop. Where had he gone wrong?
• • •
That, Alice told herself, had been a close-run thing. She hadn’t seen that coming. Fancy him trying to learn Latvian. Given that she knew next to nothing about her supposed country of birth, she had to hope that his next step wasn’t to start badgering her about it. If he did that she would have to read up on the subject; the last thing she wanted to do was to let Ronnetta down. After discussing the matter, they had both decided that it would be better for Alice to continue as Katya. Understandably, Ronnetta didn’t think it would be a good idea for a client to think he’d been made a monkey of, not when he was paying top dollar for Alice’s services.
When she had finished cleaning the kitchen, Alice went upstairs to see how big a mess Mr. Shannon had made up there. It wasn’t too bad. Despite what she’d said about the kitchen, on the whole he wasn’t an untidy man. As far as she could see his impact on the house was minimal. He’d brought just the one case with him, along with a laptop bag and his clothes took up hardly any space in the wardrobe and chest of drawers.
She wondered what he did to pass the time. Was he lonely? Bored? Was that why he had been teaching himself a few choice Latvian expressions? The fact that he had, amused her and, to a degree, raised him in her estimation. Had she really been Latvian, she would have been pleased that he’d gone to so much trouble.
She finished cleaning his bathroom—giving his toiletries a quick inspection—straightened the curtains in his bedroom, then went downstairs for the vacuum cleaner. Passing his door, she knocked on it, waited politely for him to respond then went inside. “Sorry to disturb, mister,” she said. “You make list for shopping?”
“Not yet,” he said, not bothering to turn round and look at her. His attention was focused on his laptop in front of him. She was reminded of all the occasions her mother had sat in the very same spot. Clattering away on her typewriter, she would barely notice if anyone came into the room. Unless, of course, it had been her father, who, like a cyclone, had been impossible not to notice. But many times Alice had stood on the threshold of her mother’s study waiting for her to turn round. She once timed how long it took for her mother to stop what she was doing and to answer Alice’s question: ten whole minutes. She had been a patient and determined child.
“I make busy with vacuum,” Alice said, “and then I go shopping for you. You want me to clean in here?” She stepped further into the room, peered to see what was of such interest to him on his laptop. She made out just one word—OBITUARY.
As if sensing what she was doing, he snapped the lid shut and turned to face her. He then looked about the room. “It doesn’t look like it needs cleaning to me. Does it to you?”
She shrugged. “Perhaps no. You very tidy in here.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Unlike the kitchen?”
“Much grease everywhere in kitchen. You fry too much, mister. Try grill or oven. Healthier for you.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
“Maybe you like me to cook you one day.”
He cracked a smile. “Trust me; I’ve been well and truly cooked.”
“Well, mister, I leave you in peace to write list.” She closed the door after her. Interesting, she thought. What exactly did he mean by being cooked?
She lugged the vacuum cleaner upstairs. When she reached the landing, instead of turning right to go to her old bedroom, which Mr. Shannon was using, she turned left.
She pushed open the door of her parents’ old bedroom. She had grabbed her chance to have a quick look at it the other day, but today she wanted to linger. She had dreamed of it last night, or more precisely, she had dreamed of her parents in this room.
It was like all the other rooms in the house, beautifully furnished and tastefully decorated. If Alice was honest, the decor was beginning to grate on her. It was as if the heart and soul character of the house had been stripped away in the name of good taste. That was something her parents would never have been guilty of.
She went over to the window seat, sat down and closed her eyes. In her mind’s eye she could see the room as it had once been. Clothes strewn everywhere, rugs rucked up, the paintings hanging lopsided on the walls, lampshades dusty and dented and the chest of drawers and dressing table covered with all manner of objects—Great Aunt Eliza’s silver-backed hairbrush set, strings of beads, safety pins, an old china teapot with a spider plant growing out of it, a framed picture of her father when he’d been at university, and teetering piles of books.
Alice had been twelve when her mother died. Dr. Barbara Barrett’s sudden death had been perfectly in keeping with the way her parents lived their lives. Why go quietly when you could go with a bang? And her mother had died with a bang. She had managed to electrocute herself by watching television in the bath. Alice’s father had repeatedly warned her to be careful, but she would roll her eyes at him, saying that if anyone needed to be careful it was him with all those chemicals he stored in his darkroom. Watching herself on television while soaking in the bath with a glass of wine became a happy eight o’clock weekly ritual for her. The programme she took part in was always pre-recorded and she said it was her duty to scrutinize her performance in order to appear at her best. “One has to be professional,” she would claim. Then stop talking about sex all the time when you’re on the telly! Alice had wanted to say.
It was so embarrassing to be known at school as the daughter of a sex and relationship expert. She was regularly teased for it and girls were always coming up to her and asking her questions about something her mother had said on TV. It was a wonder she had been able to walk, her toes had been so constantly curled.
Her mother’s death was reported in the newspapers and while nobody could ever be sure exactly what had happened, the coroner’s verdict was that Dr. Barbara Barrett must have slipped whilst getting into the bath and had accidentally knocked the portable TV set in with her. She wasn’t found for two days, not until Alice’s father returned from a trip photographing Emperor penguins. Alice was informed of her death at school by the headmistress. The news was bluntly delivered; no attempt was made to soften the blow.
Her father came to fetch her home from the boarding school she had recently started attending and the only words he uttered whilst driving her back to Cuckoo House were: “Thank God I was out of the country when it happened. At least no one can accuse me of finishing her off!” The day of the funeral, with tears in his eyes, he admitted to Alice that they’d had a terrible row before he’d left for Antarctica and he just wished they’d had a chance to make up before she’d died. For years afterwards, Alice could never think kindly of Emperor penguins. If her father hadn’t gone rushing off to photograph them her mother might not have died.
There were many things about her parents that Alice had never understood, but two things she could say of them with absolute certainty: her father was a powerfully charismatic man and her mother was impervious to his tantrums, wrapped as she was in her own self-absorption. There was an intense rivalry between them, each believing that their own area of expertise was superior to the other and it was probably this that made their relationship so volatile.
The simplest thing could set them off, such as a disagreement over who was the greatest living artist. “Hockney?” Alice’s father would roar with incredulity as if his wife had suggested Donald Duck. “You can’t be serious!” They would hurl themselves into a screaming match, sometimes throwing things at each other, not caring what they were smashing or what physical injury they might inflict. During one argument, Alice’s father caught a hardback edition ofRoget’s Thesaurusfull in the face and ended up with a bag of frozen peas pressed to his swelling eye. An hour later they were laughing and joking in each other’s arms and skulking upstairs to their bedroom for a kiss and make up session.
Less than a year later, the same headmistress who had informed Alice that her mother was dead informed her that she now had a stepmother.
Her father had by now established a habit of delivering good and bad news by proxy.CHAPTER EIGHT
At first, Clayton thought it was his mobile. But the ringtone—the sound of an old-fashioned telephone ringing—wasn’t coming from his phone, but from the one on the kitchen table next to Katya’s bag. He decided to be helpful. He took the mobile and went to look for her, following the noise of the vacuum cleaner.
By the time he’d tracked her down his bedroom—he couldn’t think what she’d found in there to hoover up—she’d only done it a few days ago—the mobile had stopped ringing. She looked surprised that he’d gone to so much trouble. “Thank you, mister,” she said, taking it from him.
“Sorry I wasn’t fast enough,” he said.
He watched her check to see who had called and saw her trying but failing to suppress a smile. It was a smile of undisguised delight. The mobile started to ring again. He left her to answer it.
But something made him hover halfway down the stairs. It was the fact that the phone was still ringing, that she hadn’t answered it straight away. And then the bedroom door closed.
It was wrong what he did next. Wholly wrong. But he was curious. He wanted to know what or who had made her smile in the way she had. He crept back up the stair and went and listened at the door. Initially he couldn’t make sense of what he was hearing. Katya was speaking perfect English.ProperEnglish. Queen’s English. There wasn’t a trace of foreign accent to her voice.
Holy hell, she was no more Latvian that he was! What the devil was she up to?
• • •
Alice switched off her mobile. She punched the air and danced a little jig. James Montgomery had called to invite her to have lunch with him. Oh, yes! The girl was hot. Hot, hot,hot!
• • •
Downstairs, Clayton debated with himself what to do next. Challenge Katya the moment she finished cleaning upstairs—was Katya even her real name?—or wait and see just how much further she would take this charade?
Agitated, he paced the length of the room. Something strange was going here. But what exactly? Why would she pretend to be foreign, go to such lengths to conceal her true identity?
Then it hit him. And the thought chilled him to the bone. She was a journalist! She was pretending to be a Latvian cleaner just so that she could get some kind of a scoop on him.
Now it was his turn to close the door and talk in private. He called Glen. But Glen wasn’t answering his mobile.
What should he do? He raked his hands through his hair. Should he call the police? And say what? If he did get the police involved, it would come out who he was and then he’d have God only knew how many other journalists banging on the door. That was going to happen anyway. Whatever he did he was screwed. Either way—whether he challenged the girl or continued to play along—she was going to write a humiliating piece about him. That was a dead cert.
All he could be grateful for was that he had sussed her before she’d got anything out of him. As things stood, what did she have so far? That he was calling himself Mr. Shannon and was staying in a house in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t much of a story, was it? But that could be worse for him. No story meant the newspaper would make one up.
One thing was for sure: he had to get rid of her. He would have to do it with good grace. He would have to say something like, “No hard feelings, but I’ve sussed what you’re up to; the show’s over. Please leave me alone.” If he displayed any kind of anger, he would be portrayed as unbalanced. A nut job.
Well guess what, right now, this very minute, he did feel unbalanced!
A knock at the door made him jump. He steadied himself with a deep breath, went to the door and opened it.
There she was staring back at him. As cool as you like. “I go for shopping now,” she said, hitching her bag onto her shoulder. “You have list? I see you have only little shampoo. You want me get you some?”
The sound of her fake bad English was too much. “No,” he said, “I don’t have a list for you and I don’t want any shampoo. But I’ll tell you what I do want, and that’s for you to go.”
“I sorry,” she said, a startled look on her face. “I no understand.”
“I think you understand all too well,” he replied, “so do us both a favour and drop the act. I know you’re no more from Latvia than I am.”
Her face blushed crimson and her gaze wavered. He could see the uncertainty in her eyes; she was weighing up how best to proceed. She readjusted the bag on her shoulder.
“Let me help you,” he said. “I know exactly what you’re really doing here. How about you just get your things and go? I’m sure you’re disappointed you haven’t got the story you hoped for, but I’m equally sure you’ll fill in the blanks where necessary. For the record, which newspaper are you from?”
“Newspaper?” she repeated, her gaze back on his again. “Why do you say that?” But at least she had dropped the fake accent.
“You know what? I’m surprising myself here at just how calm I’m being, but please don’t test my patience any further. I’ll ask you again: which newspaper do you write for?”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. I don’t write for a newspaper.”
“I’m using the term ‘write’ loosely. You put words one after the other and sometimes they even make sense. Sound familiar to you?”
“Um…look, this is getting a bit weird. Do you think we could sit down so I can apologize properly and try and explain why I did what I did?”
“An apology from a journalist? That’s a first.”
“You think I’m a journalist?”
“I think you’re a lot of things, but the word journalist will suffice for now.” He stepped away from the door. “Be my guest. Come on in and make yourself at home. You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t sit down; I may need to rush to the nearest loo to be violently sick if your apology is too much to take.”
He watched her go over to the sofa, but she seemed to change her mind, and skirting round the back of it, she went to the fireplace. Perched on the worn green leather of the club fender, she looked up at him. “Usually I don’t get found out. What gave me away?”
“I heard you talking on your mobile.”
“You eavesdropped on me? That’s outrageous.”
“Hey, you’re in no position to try and take the moral high ground.”
She sighed. “You’re right. The thing is, I used to be an actress, now I do voice-over work, and sometimes I can’t help myself; I just love slipping into a character. I hadn’t intended to do it when I turned up here to work for you, but it was…” she hesitated. “Well, can we just say extenuating circumstances made me do it?”
“No we cannot!” he snapped. “And frankly, you’re going to have to do a lot better than that load of bull before I accept your apology.”
“I’m telling you the truth. And if you hadn’t been so rude to me when you opened the door I might not have got myself into this mess.”
“Oh, this gets better and better. Now it’s my fault.” He laughed bitterly. “Where have I heard that before?”
“You’re not a very happy man, are you?”
“My happiness has got nothing to do with you.”
She shrugged. “Just making conversation.”
“No you weren’t. You were looking for a way to make me open up to you. Well, forget it. I’m not that stupid. Confide in a journalist? I’d sooner stick a wasp up my arse!”
She shrugged again. “Each to his own. Can I ask you something?”
“I don’t think you’ve figured how this works. I’m the one asking the questions.”
Ignoring him, she said, “Why do you think I’m a journalist?”
“Because what else could you be? Certainly not an actress.”
She sat up straight. “Don’t you go disparaging my acting skills. Not when I convinced you every step of the way that I was Katya from Latvia. I was acting my socks off there. But you know what intrigues me?”
He rolled his eyes. “I can’t begin to think.”
“The question I keep asking myself is why you think a journalist would be so interested in you, to the extent she would adopt a false identity while shopping and cleaning for you. Who are you? Or more to the point, what have you done that makes you so incredibly newsworthy?”CHAPTER NINE
“Who said anything about me being newsworthy?”
“You with your paranoia, thinking I was a journalist. Which I’m not. I swear it. Hand on heart.”
“Hand on heart,” he mimicked. “You expect me to believe that you’re telling the truth when you’ve done nothing but lie since you showed up here? Don’t make me laugh. By the way, you were breathtakingly rude to me.”
“Yes, I was. Sorry about that. But once I got into the character of Katya, I couldn’t stop myself. She just seemed naturally bossy.”
“Does that mean in the real world you’re nothing like her?”
She smiled. “I spend as little time in the real world as I possibly can.”
“Meaning what exactly? That you’re crazy?”
“Aren’t we all from time to time?”
He faltered in his response as the image of a rabbit’s head—all ten feet of its monstrous circumference grotesquely illuminated—popped into his mind. He blinked and chased the image away. “What’s your real name?” He asked. “In therealworld?”
“Alice,” she replied. “Alice Shoemaker.”
“Yeah, right, and I’m Michael Shumacher. I’ve never heard a more made up name.”
“All names are made up,” she said indignantly.
“True, but Alice Shoemaker sounds like it was snatched from the ether fifteen seconds ago.”
She rooted in her bag, pulled out a wallet, opened it and crossed the room to him. “See, there’s my driving licence. It clearly states my name.”
It did. And her address. “You’re local? You’re not from London?”
“I’m as local as it’s possible to be. In fact—” She broke off.
“In fact what?”
“I was born in this very house. Upstairs in my parents’ bedroom. I arrived two weeks early in the middle of the night and there wasn’t time to get my mother to the hospital. I grew up here.”
Clayton raked a hand through his hair. It was all becoming too much for him. “Have I got this right? Your name is Alice Shoemaker, you used to live here and you’re an actress. So why then, are you keeping house for me? Are times that hard that you clean while you’re ‘resting’?”
“Sorry to correct you, but as I said earlier, it’s voice-over work that I do, not acting per se. And not that it’s any of your business, but times are far from hard for me; I’m doing this job as a favour for my neighbour who runs the cleaning agency.”
“Can you prove it?”
“Prove what? That I’m not strapped for cash?”
“That it’s voice-over work you do and you’re not a journalist.”
“You really are paranoid, aren’t you?” Once more she rooted around inside her bag, pulled out her wallet again. “There,” she said, “my equity card. Satisfied now? Or would you like to speak to Ronnetta who runs the cleaning agency? She’ll corroborate everything I’ve told you. Well, except the bit about me having grown up here. She doesn’t know that.”
“And the reason why not?”
“It’s complicated and nothing to do with you,” she said.
“Excuse me, but I think it’s got everything to do with me. You’ve been working here under false pretences.”
She stuck out her chin. “So shoot me!”
“Please don’t tempt me!”
Shoulders squared, they glared at each other, the atmosphere between them suddenly scorched with hostility.
Then Clayton lost it. For no real reason he could think of, he began to laugh. He laughed and laughed. He laughed so much his sides and jaw ached and he had to collapse onto the sofa.
• • •
Unnerved, Alice didn’t know what to make of this strange man now sprawled on the sofa. “Are you all right?” she asked when his manic laughter finally subsided.All right?What was she saying? The man was deranged! He was probably a raging psycho! She had to be a few screws loose herself still to be in the same room as him. Especially as she’d just invited him to shoot her.
“Couldn’t be better,” he said. He wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands.
Dear God, was he crying? “Look,” Alice said, inching away from him and towards the door and safety. “I’d better be going.”
“No!” he said, snapping forward.
She stepped further away from him. “I’ve caused enough trouble here for you. I’ll get my things and go.”
“No,” he said, “don’t go.”
Now he really was creeping her out. “You were very clear about wanting me go to a short while ago.”
“I’ve changed my mind.” He sat up, wiped his eyes again. “I’m sorry,” he said, hauling himself to his feet. “I lost it there for a moment. I’ve…I’ve been under a lot of stress recently. I think I need a drink. Have one with me.”
• • •
This was insane! How had she got herself into a situation whereby she was being held hostage by a mad man insisting that she have coffee with him? She had to be glad that it hadn’t been an alcoholic drink he’d had in mind; at least she was spared the prospect of having to fend off a drunken mad man.
As she sat apprehensively at the kitchen table, Alice waited for him to finish fossicking around with the coffee machine. It was one of those complicated-looking machines with buttons and levers that made cappuccino and espresso coffee. It seemed to be taking for ever. She wished he’d opted to use the kettle as he had before.
Eventually he brought two goldfish bowl-sized cups of frothy coffee to the table. “Biscuit?” he asked.
“No thank you.”
“Mind if I do?”
I don’t care what you do, she thought, so long as I get out of here alive. And so long as it isn’t in ten years’ time when I’m found chained and emaciated in the cellar.
Once he was settled at the table and had managed to wrestle open a packet of Jaffa Cakes, she started the process of negotiating her freedom by engaging him in conversation. “Um…you mentioned something about being under a lot of stress recently. Problems at work?”
“Problems with everything would be a more accurate description,” he said glumly. “My life’s hit the skids and there doesn’t seem to be a damn thing I can do about it. I’m a cliché in my own lifetime.”
“Oh, we’ve all been there,” she said airily. If he was looking for a sympathetic hostage, he was out of luck.
“But did you have your every misfortune, failure and cock-up written about in the newspapers? Did you have journalists doorstepping you all hours of the day and night?”
Alice thought of her mother’s death and then of the events that took place some years later. There had been a brief flurry of press interest and speculation, but not on the level he appeared to be talking about. “No,” she said, “I can’t say that I have.”
“Then count yourself lucky.”
His tone was morose and it made her wonder. There was something going on here. She had been right to think there was more to him than met the eye. What’s more, she sensed the only hostage sitting round this table was the one opposite her. She took a sip of her coffee. It was surprisingly good. Feeling that she was now the one in control of the situation, she helped herself to a Jaffa Cake. “Having establishedmytrue identity,” she said, “how about we do the same with you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She smiled her best winsomely enticing smile, the same smile she would be putting to good use during lunch with James Montgomery tomorrow.
He looked at her strangely. “You’ve got—” He flapped his hand vaguely across his top lip, “coffee froth on your…” His voice trailed away.
She wiped her mouth. So much for winsome and enticing. “What did you find so hysterically funny earlier?” she asked.
He shifted awkwardly in his seat, closed his eyes. They stayed closed for some moments as if he were in pain. When he opened them, he said, “I think it was the absurdity of it all. That and remembering something Beckett once said, that there’s nothing funnier than unhappiness. Haven’t you ever thought how futile and ludicrous life is sometimes, and that if you don’t take refuge in laughter you’ll end up in a far worse place?”
“That’s quite profound.”
“What can I say? I’m a profound kind of guy.”
A profoundly unhappy guy, she thought. “Shall I tell Ronnetta that she needs to find a replacement for me? I don’t know how long it will take—she’s short-staffed at the moment. Which is why you landed up with me. She scraped the barrel and there I was.”
A silence fell between them.
“I’d rather not have anyone else,” he said after a lengthy and uncomfortable pause.
“Will you be able to manage on your own?” she asked, surprised. “What about your shopping? How will you do that without a car? You could walk, I suppose. It’s over three miles to the nearest shops, though. You could always use a taxi. I can recommend a good firm to you.”
He picked up his coffee cup and looked at her uneasily over its rim. “I thought maybe you could keep coming.”
“Even though I lied to you and you think I’m untrustworthy?”
“Who’s to say the next person won’t lie to me? But at least I know you.”
“Now that’s where you’re wrong. You know my name, my profession, that I grew up here, and that I live locally. But that’s all. You don’t knowmefrom a bar of soap.”
“Wrong. I know that you take your coffee without sugar—sorry, by the way, about the sugar I put in it the other day. I know that a certain man called James makes you smile and turns you pink at the edges, and that you’re probably unhappy with your life the way it is. Maybe you never have been happy with it. Oh, and I also know that you’re thirty-one years old.”
“That’s nothing but a load of supposition and guesswork.”
“You think so? How old are you, then?”
She frowned. “OK, you got that right. But how?”
“Your driving licence.”
“Mm…you’re sharper than you look.”
“I certainly hope so.”
“The beard—it’s a new thing for you, isn’t it?”
“It could be.”
“I think you probably look better without it. Maybe even younger. Are you hiding behind it? Just as you’re hiding here at Cuckoo House?”
“Have another biscuit and be quiet.”
“You are, aren’t you?”
He didn’t say anything.
“I won’t tell anyone. I’m very good with secrets. Just as long as I’m in on them.” She gave him what she hoped was a deep, dark, penetrating look.
“That sounds suspiciously like a threat.”
“In the nicest possible way.” She leaned across the table and smiled. “Tell me who you are. Please.” Back to being winsome and enticing. Good cop, bad cop all rolled into one: how good was she?
“And if I don’t?”
“You’ll have to manage on your own.”
He face twitched with something that could have very nearly passed for a smile. “I think I preferred it when you were Katya. She wasn’t half so manipulative.”
“You only saw the good side of her.”
“And which side of you am I currently seeing?”
“Oh, definitely my good side. Believe me, you don’t want to see my bad side. Why did you say you thought I was unhappy with my life the way it is?”
“You ask a lot of questions for someone who isn’t a journalist.”
She drummed her fingers on the table. “Waiting for your answer.”
“It’s obvious: why else would you choose, and I quote,to spend as little time in the real world as possible, if you were happy with it?”
Ouch, thought Alice. “And what about you? Are you happy with your lot as you sit here in a strange house wearing a strange comedy beard?”
“Don’t forget the strange girl I’m sitting with.”
She drummed her fingers again. “And waiting once more.”
“I’ve been happier,” he admitted.
It would be difficult not to have been, she thought. “Well,” she said, “this has been tremendous fun but I really ought to be going.” She stood up, took her cup and saucer over to the dishwasher.
“What about my shopping?” he asked.
She closed the dishwasher and looked at him, determined to try one last shot at reeling him in. There was a mystery here and by hook or by crook she wanted to get to the bottom of it. “You know deal, mister. You tell Katya the truth, then she shop for you.”
He let out a short bark of a laugh. “Not even in the game, kid. I’ll walk.”
She switched back to Alice again. “Sure you will. All three and a half miles there and all three and a half miles back. With those big heavy bags. In the rain. In the wind. And the snow. We often get snow here in November.”
“I’ll ring for a taxi.”
“And he or she will help to keep the house clean for you? Come on, let me help you. Tell me who you really are.”
“We seem to be stuck in a rut here. Backwards and forwards we go but never getting anywhere.”
“I hate to break the bad news to you but that well of cynicism will dry up one day.”
“But it’s working a treat for me now; it’s what makes me so cute and adorable.”
“If you say so. If there isn’t anything else I can do for you, I’ll be going. Enjoy your stay here.” She pulled on her coat and began gathering together her cleaning things.
“How does it feel?” he said.
She stopped what she was doing. “How does what feel?”
“Being back in this house, where you grew up?”
“You have no idea.”
• • •
From the window of the room he’d claimed as his den, Clayton watched the small red car drive away. Well, he thought. That’s that, then.
He retraced his steps to the kitchen. Lunch. He needed something to eat. A sandwich. A nice cheese and pickle sandwich. He opened the bread bin and found a solitary crust.
It wasn’t often that an author came into the studio, not unless a bonus author interview was being added to the CDs and cassettes, but James Montgomery always came into the studio for the first day of recording, he said he liked to be a part of the process.
Alice had a real fondness for his spirited protagonist, a twelve-year-old girl called Mattie Munroe. To all intents and purposes, Mattie was a perfectly normal girl who lived in a perfectly normal house with a perfectly normal mother and father and two perfectly normal older brothers. She wasn’t a posh, clever child like Hermione from Harry Potter, nor was she one of those angsty troubled types coping with a dysfunctional family, playground bullies or teenage gangsters. But as with most children, she had a secret world into which she disappeared. Her secret world just happened to be a bit different from the usual level of make-believe children created for themselves. Hers was real, for a start. Whenever she opened a magic umbrella in her bedroom she and the family pet—an African grey parrot called Eric—would be transferred to faraway lands where they would be caught up in all manner of hair-raising adventures. During these adventures, Eric had to act as Mattie’s interpreter for the many strange languages they encountered, but on their return to her bedroom—the umbrella neatly furled and put away in the wardrobe—Eric reverted to his usual level of who’s-a-pretty-boy? communication. Just occasionally, though, he let slip a word or two regarding their escapades, ensuring that both the reader and Mattie knew that what took place was real and not a figment of Mattie’s imagination.
As a child Alice would have loved James’s books; she would have read and re-read them. She enjoyed them as an adult, too. But then she was biased. She would love anything James wrote. He once told her that Mattie was based on a girl he had a crush on when he was a young boy. “It was the freckles that did it,” he’d confided. “They made her look so charmingly kooky. I’ve never forgotten her.” As a child Alice had had plenty of freckles but she had never dreamed that anyone might find them charming, least of all a boy who would one day grow into a man as divine as James. Looking through the glass to where James was sitting with Josie, she regretted having grown out of those freckles. Was it possible nowadays to have them painted on with the aid of cosmetic surgery?
It was probably seriously uncool to have a crush on someone at her age, but Alice couldn’t help herself. Nor was she alone in her adoration. Josie always came over all of a dither whenever James came to the studio, and she was way,wayolder than Alice. More than a decade older, practically menopausal and at an age when she should be thinking about grandchildren, never mind making disgraceful eyes at James. It wasn’t just the females at the studio who batted their eyelashes at him. In his own words, Chris, the sound engineer, considered him as majorly droolworthy. Only when James came into the studio did Chris wear his best Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt with indecently tight white jeans and diamond stud earrings. Any other day and it was skanky khaki from head to toe and boring silver hoops through his ears.
This morning James was indeed looking majorly droolworthy. His trademark lopsided fringe of dark-brown hair was flopping sexily across his wide intelligent forehead and brushing his sapphire-blue eyes. His publicity photographs didn’t do him justice; in the flesh he was sinfully good-looking.
He was chatting with Josie on the other side of the glass. They were taking a break while Chris twiddled the knobs—the noise of an aeroplane flying overhead had been picked up and they would have to redo the last page. Alice took a long, thirsty swig of water from her bottle on the desk, got up and stretched. Her shoulders ached from sitting still for so long. She imagined James offering to rub her neck and shoulders and instantly felt the tension drain out of her.
She had once read that the greater part of any relationship was carried out inside one’s head. The hopes, the longing, the erotic fantasy of desire, in short, the best of a relationship, was all acted out in the mind. Alice couldn’t disagree with the theory. In her own head (putting aside all the great sex they’d had—it went without saying that they were a perfect match in bed) she had been on countless dates with James. They had been on romantic dinners, enjoyed long weekends away in country retreats with roaring log fires and expensive Frette bed linen, and strolled along the Champs Élysées in Paris. And naturally, they had lain on sun-drenched beaches in exotic locations.
The life she led inside her head was far more interesting that the one she really lived. The most excitement she’d had this last week was to clean for a strange man whilst fooling him she was Latvian.
She had to concede, however, that as strange as Laughing Boy clearly was, he was not unobservant. He had sussed her feelings for James with disturbing alacrity. Was is possible that others had picked up on the effect James had on her? Had James himself? Was that why he had invited her out for lunch today? To put her gently right, to explain that whilst he was enormously flattered there could never be anything other than a working relationship between them? He’d probably be very apologetic, push a rueful hand through that fringe of his, and say that he hoped he hadn’t given out any misleading signals.
Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened to her. Given the crumpled road map of her failed relationships, misleading signs were par for the course.
Following her last visit to Cuckoo House, she had told Ronnetta what had happened, that her Katya act had been rumbled, and in her typical come-what-may fashion Ronnetta had told Alice not to lose any sleep over it. She had said she would ring the contact number she had and see if the agency’s services were still required.
• • •
She might have known that she had got the wrong end of the stick. Lunch was not the cosy intimate affair Alice had imagined, or hoped for. Instead, James had invited Josie and Chris as well. What on earth had made her think that James would single her out for lunch?
A stonking great dose of wishful thinking, that’s what! Funny, though, that neither Josie nor Chris had mentioned anything earlier about having lunch with James. Perhaps they had also leapt to the mistaken hope that they had been chosen for special treatment and hadn’t wanted to let on.
Oh, well, another misread sign.
They were sitting at a corner table in the Fox and Barrel, a drab pub within walking distance of the studio. Snow Patrol’s latest dreary offering was playing in the background, adding to the dismal mood. The middle of Alice’s pizza was stone cold—judging from its rubbery outer ring, it probably hadn’t spent long enough in the microwave—and she was struggling to rally any enthusiasm to eat it. In fact, such was her disappointment she was struggling to join in with the conversation around the table. Chris was telling them a supposedly hysterically funny story about how he’d locked himself out of his house wearing only a towel and a smile. What a tart he was, thought Alice. Chris was only telling the story so that James was obliged to picture his body naked.
It wasn’t like Alice to feel to petulant, but really, why couldn’t Josie and Chris have done the decent thing and declined James’s suggestion for them all to have lunch together? Why did they have to be so selfish? She mentally kicked herself. Great! Why not add irrational paranoia to petulance?
At this rate she’d soon be as nuts as Laughing Boy.
“Aren’t you going to eat that?”
Alice looked up. Josie’s fork was pointing at her barely touched pizza. “I’m not really hungry,” Alice responded.
“Waste not want not,” Josie said with a cheerful laugh.
This from the thirteen-stone woman who claimed that she ate no more than a sparrow. Yeah right, a sparrow the size of an ostrich! “Be my guest,” Alice said. She pushed the plate nearer to Josie.
“Eu-ew!” said Josie, after she’d taken a mouthful. “That’s disgusting. It’s barely cooked.”
“Really? asked James, putting down his knife and fork. Concern was written all over his handsome face.
“I think it may need a minute or two longer in the oven,” Alice murmured.
“It needs binning, more like,” asserted Josie. “Take it back, Alice and demand they give you something else.”
The perfect gentleman, James was up on his feet, the offending plate of pizza in his hands. “Come on Alice, let’s go and order you something that’s edible.”
Alice didn’t need asking twice. In a flash she was out of her seat and at James’s side. Hurrah, alone with him at last!
The young girl behind the bar was working solo and had her hands full with a sudden influx of customers. “Looks like we could be here for a while,” Alice said, adding, but not meaning it, “You’d better go back and eat your lunch.”
James smiled. “No rush. My Caesar salad won’t spoil. In fact, I’m pleased that we’ve got this chance to be alone. There’s something I want to talk to you about.”
She was just thinking how grateful she was that James was the kind of man who ate salad for lunch, and how his smile was the most devastating smile she had ever been on the receiving end of, when her thoughts came to a crashing stop. Oh God, was this going to be the I’m-flattered-but-there-can-never-be-anything-between-us pep talk? “Something you wanted to discuss with me?” she said casually. “What’s that then?”
“The thing is—” His words hung in the air, his attention diverted by a messily folded newspaper to the left of him. He reached for it, opened it and smoothed out the pages. “What do you make of this story?”
“What story’s that?” she asked, moving closer to James, her shoulder ever so slightly pressing against his arm.
“I was at school with him. Well, actually that’s stretching the truth a bit. We were at the same school; he was in the sixth form when I joined aged eleven.”
James laughed and pointed at one of the photographs in the newspaper. “You’re obviously above sullying yourself with grubby tabloid tittle-tattle, aren’t you?”
“I wouldn’t say that exactly. Who is he?” she repeated.
“Only one of the greatest comedy writers this country’s ever produced.”
“Really? What’s he known for?”
“Latterly for all the wrong reasons. But you must have heard of him. His name’s Clayton Miller and he and his writing partner, Barry Osborne, wroteJoking Aside. They were right up there with the greats in double-act comedy writing: Perry and Croft, Galton and Simpson, Gervais and Merchant—”
• • •
“Joking Aside?” Alice interrupted. “I loved that; I never missed an episode. It was brilliant.”
“It still is. Which is more than can be said for Clayton Miller. He’s disappeared, apparently. Gone crackers maracas if the papers are to be believed.”
Alice looked at the double-page spread. There was a small photo of a man wearing a tuxedo minus the bow tie and holding up an award. He had a wide grin on his face; he looked nothing short of ecstatic, like a man on top of the world. Below it was another picture of a very different-looking man, dishevelled, shoulders hunched, and a hand partially covering a scowling face. On the opposite page was a picture of a man and a woman sitting on a sofa; they were holding hands and looking adoringly into each other’s eyes. They looked very staged, like one of those couples who’d just undergone a makeover. They were both immaculately dressed in what appeared to be matching straw-coloured linen suits and their hair was coiffured to perfection. Alice had the feeling she had seen them before, on the television or maybe in a magazine. Yes, that was it; she’d seen them in a copy of Ronnetta’s preferred choice of reading material,Hello!It had been something about a big charity event.
“Sorry to keep you waiting. What can I get you?”
Alice looked up to see the young girl behind the bar wilting beneath the strength of James’s devastating smile. “I think your chef must be having an off day,” he said good-naturedly whilst handing her the plate.
“My pizza wasn’t cooked properly,” explained Alice. James or no James, she was quite capable of fighting her own battles.
“No problem,” the girl said brightly. “Shall I put it back in the oven for you? Or would you prefer to choose something else?”
Her gaze was fixed on James; Alice was as good as invisible by his side. James turned to Alice. “I’ll have a sandwich,” she said. “Cheese and pickle.”
“No problem. I’ll bring it over to your table. Where are you sitting?”
“Over in the corner,” James said.
Wondering if the girl lived a permanently problem-free life, Alice turned to go. James put a hand on her arm. “Alice,” he said, “before we join the others, can I just—” But he got no further. He delved into his trouser pocket and pulled out his ringing mobile. “Sorry about this,” he said.
Alice stayed where she was, fighting the urge to snatch the mobile out of his hands and tell whoever was calling him to call back later because right now James had something important to say to her, and that something was clearly meant for her ears only. Doing her best to convince herself it was something nice he wanted to share with her, she allowed her mind to race with happy speculation while she pretended to be fascinated by the newspaper article they’d been looking at.
James’s call seemed set to go on and on. In between making apologetic faces, he kept giving her twinkly looks with his mesmerizing blue eyes. The sensible thing to do would be to leave him to it and go back to Chris and Josie, but no way was she going to do that.
By now she was no longer pretending to read the newspaper article but reading it properly. She was halfway through it when she began to get a funny feeling. She stared at the photographs closely. Not the large one of the couple whose names she now knew were Barry Osborne and Stacey Cook, but the two smaller pictures; the ones of the two very different-looking men. She now knew that it was the same man in the photographs, a classic comparison of before and after pictures. There was something distinctly familiar about the “after” shot.
But did you have your every misfortune, failure and cock-up written about in the newspapers? Did you have journalists doorstepping you all hours of the day and night?
If this particular newspaper was to be believed, Alice knew the exact whereabouts of a dangerously vindictive man who, according to Stacey Cook, was in urgent need of medical help. “To have done what he did, he’s clearly sick in the head,” she was reported as saying. “If Barry and I weren’t suffering to the extent we are, we’d pity him.”CHAPTER ELEVEN
Clayton was not going to be beaten. Well, no more beaten than he already was. If food was required, then he would go in search of it.
For his intrepid expedition had helped himself to a selection of outdoor clothing from the room off the kitchen—boots, thick socks, a full-length green raincoat that had several bulky and heavy layers to it, and a hat with a wide brim so large a family of four could take shelter beneath it. He looked and felt ridiculous. Everything was too big for him; Glen’s friend had to be some kind of colossus. He had seen stuff like this advertised in the back of magazines but never thought people actually wore it. Funny what people got up to in the country. But at least there wasn’t a chance of anyone recognizing him in this get-up. He didn’t recognize himself, come to that.
He had been walking for what felt like several days, but was in actual fact only three quarters of an hour, and still there was no sign of any shops. Had that wretched girl Alice deliberately lied to him? Were the shops further away than she’d made out?
She hadn’t lied about how dreadful the weather could be, that much he knew. It had rained solidly all day. He’d been tempted to go online and arrange for a supermarket to deliver the things he needed, but nearly a week of being cooped up and cabin fever had kicked in. He needed a change of scene. It was a simple choice between venturing out into the great unknown and going stir crazy. Knowing his luck, if he did try ordering anything online, given the remoteness of where he was staying, the chances of his order arriving would be slim. So tramping the wilderness it was. Because the sharp pointy end of the stick was, deny a man the essential sustenance of his existence—bread, milk, eggs, bacon, sausages, coffee, wine—and who knew what kind of a monster he might turn into?
He’d also acquired a fixation for peanut butter. He hadn’t eaten it for years but suddenly it was all he could think of. Peanut butter on hot buttered toast. Peanut butter on hot buttered crumpets. Smooth peanut butter. Crunchy peanut butter. Organic peanut butter. Peanut butter with every known noxious additive and deadly preservative added to it. He didn’t care how it came, so long as he could get his hands on a jar to satisfy his craving.
As a young child he used to eat masses of it, usually in front of the television on a Sunday evening whilst waiting for his hair to dry before going to bed. His mother had been a belt, buckle and braces kind of mother, the sort who believed he would catch pneumonia if he went to bed with so much as a single strand of hair that was damp. He had been eight years old when he’d finally convinced her that he didn’t need to take a spare pair of underpants to school with him every day. She had claimed she was only trying to save him the shame of embarrassing himself in front of his friends if he had what she coyly referred to as a “little accident.” Never mind that the humiliation of his peers discovering the underpants in his bag one day and chucking them from the window of the school bus damn near killed him.
WhenJoking Asidetook off and he and Bazza were regularly pitching up at award ceremonies, Clayton’s mother was constantly on the phone warning him of the perils of not having an extra pair of trousers to hand for such a special occasion. “What if you trip on the way and rip your trousers? What if you spill a drink over yourself? There’ll be all those cameras. Everyone willsee. What will theythinkof you?” She had never fully accepted that he had outgrown the worst of his childhood clumsiness. He had been a hopelessly uncoordinated child, incapable of catching or kicking a ball, but a world-class athlete in tripping over his own shadow.
God only knew how his mother would have coped with the shame of the last few weeks. In contrast, he knew exactly how his father would have handled it. He would have been tight-lipped and assumed his normal position of regarding his only son as the oddity he’d always believed him to be. Death had at least spared them both the ignominy of having to face the neighbours.
He stomped through a puddle and hoped he wasn’t making the mistake of reliving his childhood to avoid the here and now. He had never been in favour of staring up his backside in search of an answer to the meaning of life. His life in particular. He had done many futile things in his time, but esoteric journeys of navel gazing weren’t about to be added to the list. He’d had enough of that with Stacey.
In the last year of their relationship she had taken to sitting up in bed preaching to him from the latest book of life-enhancing flim-flam she was currently swallowing whole. “You need to hug and touch more,” she had informed him one night.
“I tried that earlier and you said you weren’t interested.”
“That was sex, Clayton. I’m talking about embracing your inner child and inviting others to touch that child.”
“Whoa! What the hell are you reading?The Paedophile’s Getting to Know You Handbook?”
“That’s so typical of you,” she’d said, slapping the book shut and slamming it down on the bedside table. “You purposely misunderstand things so you don’t have to admit you need to change. Why do you always have to be so aggressively anal? Would it kill you to consider there’s another way to be? That hugging a stranger might just make you less of a stranger to yourself?”
It was all part of the litany of You-know-what’s-wrong-with-you-don’t-you? Would hugging people he didn’t know have saved his career or his relationship with Stacey? Was that what Lucky Bazza was so good at? And when, he wanted to know, had it become a crime not to want to be hugged and kissed by a total stranger?
It seemed to Clayton that an ever increasing number of people were obsessed with change. Why couldn’t they accept that not everyone needed to change the way they were, that maybe they were even happy with the status quo? Could it be that the Staceys of this world were only capable of being happy when changing others to suit their needs? It also meant they were doing a canny job in avoiding holding up the mirror to themselves.
He felt his mobile vibrating in his jeans pocket and after fumbling under the layers of his coat for it, Caller ID told him it was Glen. About time too!
“Sorry I didn’t get back to you yesterday, Clay,” Glen said. “I had wall-to-wall meetings then a dinner to attend in the evening. I’m just on my way back to the office after a long lunch with the new Head of Light Entertainment at the Beeb. I’m having a busy week.” Clayton could hear voices and the rumble of traffic in the background. It was music to his ears: civilization! “So how’s it going?” Glen asked.
“Glad you could find the time to ask,” Clayton replied. “Two words: bloody and awful.”
“Your perspicacity astounds me at times.”
“I’ve told you before, if it’s love you’re after, there are plenty of women out there only a credit card away.”
“Something you’d know all about.”
“Is that the sound of righteous self-pity I hear?”
“Hey, if I don’t feel sorry for myself, who will?” Clayton then recounted his discovery, regarding Alice pretending to be Katya.
He’d just got as far as saying how she’d admitted that she’d grown up at Cuckoo House when Glen said, “Yes, I got a call from the cleaning agency this morning. I must say, that girl sounds nearly as off-kilter as you. But what did I say about keeping a low profile? There was to be no engaging in any conversation. You were to keep your head down and avoid trouble. Which bit of my advice did you not understand?”
“I tried but believe me, she was a force of nature. She would sweep in and just start yapping on and on.”
“Do you think she knows who you are?”
Never mind the girl, Clayton suddenly wanted to shout at his agent. What about me, forced now to scavenge for food in the pouring rain? Was this what his life had come to? “She’d latched onto the idea that I was hiding here,” he said, attempting to get a grip on his exasperation, “but from the way she was interrogating me, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know who I am. She even tried to blackmail me.”
“She said she would continue to shop and clean for me if I told her who I really was.”
“I don’t like the sound of that. You be careful. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea of mine to pack you off up there. Have you seen a newspaper recently?”
“I’ve seen zilch. I’m not even looking at the stuff online. Why do you ask?”
“You’re back in a few of the red tops today. Stacey and Bazza are whoring themselves around the neighbourhood again. I heard they’re making another television appearance in the coming week.”
“You’d think they’d be bored of it by now. Or at least the public would be. What do you think they’re trying to gain by it?”
“Sympathy? Higher Profile? You tell me.”
“At this rate I’ll never be able to come home.”
“We need an angle, Clay. Something with which to fight back. Got any ideas?”
“I could try committing suicide.”
“Mmm…you know, that might just work.”
“I was joking!”
“Oh, right. Yes. Of course. Ha, ha, funny one.”
“Yeah, bloody hilarious.”
“It’s good you haven’t lost your sense of humour. No chance that you’ve had a creative urge and written anything, have you?”
“St. Glen the Patron Saint of the Bottom Line. You’re all heart, Glen.”
“It’s just a thought. After all, what else have you got to do up there?”
After the sound of a siren blaring in Clayton’s ear had passed, he said, “Is there any point in me writing anything ever again? Who’s going to want it?”
“Have faith, my old mate. You write something good, I’ll find a home for it. That’s a promise. Did I tell you I’ve just taken on a new client?”
“Wow! Like I’m really interested to hear that.”
“He reminds me of you. In the old days when you used to produce some of the best stuff ever written.”
“Go to hell!”
“Be nice to me, Clayton.”
“Just remind me how you’re able to drive around in an Aston Martin?”
“I work my butt off for you. Always have. Always will.”
“What’s ten per cent of an Aston Martin these days? Because that’s how nice I am to you.”
“Sorry to burst that balloon of self-sacrifice but it’s not enough for the amount of grief you put me through. Now what do you want me to tell that woman at the cleaning agency? Do you want someone else? Although if you do, you’ll have to wait a while as apparently she’s—”
“Short-staffed,” Clayton cut in impatiently. “Yes, I know all about that. For now I’ll manage on my own.”
“It’ll probably be safer that way. Just don’t make a mess of the house. Meanwhile, stay out of trouble.”
Clayton rang off, shoved his mobile into one of the many pockets the coat had and trudged on in the rain.
Stay out of trouble.
Glen made it sound as if he deliberately went around looking for trouble. It was the other way around. Trouble came looking for him. It always had.
He thought of his agent’s new client and idly wondered what kind of money was involved. The thing about the industry was that no matter how much an individual was paid to come up with a hit show, there was always someone else coming up on the rails with a potentially bigger and better hit show and being paid more for it. It was what made it the bitchy, ego-crushing world it was. Sometimes he thought he was well out of it. Other times he thought he’d sell his own liver and kidneys to get back in the game.
Having slogged to the crest of a hill, he was now peering through the rain and misty gloom at a stretch of long and winding tarmac road; it was completely deserted, not a car or person in sight. It crossed his mind that he might be lost. He had assumed that if he kept walking in a straight line, he would sooner or later end up where he needed to be. Had he missed a vital turning? If he had, he’d probably done it when he was talking to Glen. What should he do? Continue on, or retrace his steps?
If he retraced his steps he might well find himself back at Cuckoo House, and what would he have achieved then? No eggs. No bacon. No peanut butter.
He had to have that peanut butter.
No matter what else, he was not going to return to Cuckoo House without a jar of peanut butter.
The answer was to press on and hope for the—
Gunfire? What was this, bandit country? Another gunshot going off had him looking around for something to take cover behind. Then through the gloom, coming from the direction he’d just walked, he saw what was causing the noise: it was a car. Deliverance! It was the first car he had seen. No way was he going to let it pass.
He stepped into the middle of the road as the car slowly approached. It was an ancient Morris Minor, with…with no one at the wheel. How as that possible? Had he slipped through a portal into a weirdly surreal world where cars drove themselves? Whatever was driving it, the car appeared to have no intention of stopping. He held his ground. It was almost upon him when through the windscreen he saw a small, beaky face peering over the steering wheel. A hand was waving furiously at him to get out of the way. Clayton held his breath and stayed where he was. He wanted that jar of peanut butter and nothing on this earth was going to stop him.
Just inches from the toes of his borrowed boots, the car backfired to a stop. The engine wheezed, spluttered, rattled and then died. His heart banging with fear and relief inside his chest, Clayton swallowed. He went round to the driver’s side of the car. The small, beaky face belonged to a hobgoblin wearing a plastic rain-hood. He hadn’t seen a rain-hood in years. Not since the days when his mother had worn one to protect her hair when she came home from the hairdressers. Come to think of it, when was the last time he’d seen a hobgoblin?
On closer inspection the hobgoblin was in actual fact a wizened old woman. She was staring implacably at him through the steamed up side window. The ferocious hostility in her face made him take a step back. “I seem to have lost my way,” he said loudly. “Can you help me?”
She made no attempt to wind down the window.
“I’m looking for the shops,” he shouted. “Can. You. Help. Me?”
He leaned down and tapped on the window. He would not be denied his peanut butter. Very slowly, the window was lowered and a grudging three-inch gap appeared at the top.
Through which the barrel of a hand gun appeared.CHAPTER TWELVE
“OK, sonny, I’m warning you now, any funny business and I’ll blow your head off.”
Rooted to the spot, Clayton knew that he should be backing away, and fast. But he couldn’t move. His body had locked tight. He was rigid with mind-numbing terror. Even his life was too scared to flash before him. The only part of him that appeared to have ability to move was the bit that Glen maintained he’d never been able to control: his mouth. “And a good day to you, madam,” he heard himself say.Stay out of trouble, Glen had said…
“Oh, fancy yourself a smart aleck, do you? Well, let’s see how smart you are with half your ugly mug missing!”
Clayton Miller, aged just forty-four and the nation’s favourite comedy writer, was brutally murdered by a mad woman. What has the world come to when an innocent and much-loved genius is gunned down simply for asking directions so that he could buy himself a jar of peanut butter?
“Are you listening to me?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’d drifted off there for a moment.”
“Drifted off?” Her beady eyes looked at him incredulously. “Are you on drugs?”
“Never touch the stuff. So don’t waste your time trying to sell me any.”
She pursed her thin lips. There was a hint of a moustache on her top lip and her face, creased and severely weather-beaten, looked like it had been given a regular coating of creosote for the last fifty years. “You’ve escaped from somewhere, haven’t you?” she said. “You’re not the full shilling.”
“Do you suppose we could hold this delightful conversation without that gun being pointed at me?”
“Not until I’m sure about you. What do you want?”
“Directions. I’m trying to get to the nearest shops.”
“Where’ve you come from?”
He hesitated.Stay out of trouble…
The beady eyes tightened their grip on him. “You’re obviously not local. Where are you staying? Come on, out with it. I haven’t got all day.” She had one of those terrifyingly superior voices, the sort of voice that had been born to boss people about.
“Cuckoo House,” he said obediently.
“You know it?”
She snorted. “I’ve lived here all my life; of course I know it. You’re a friend of the Armstrongs, then?”
“Yes,” he lied. “They’re letting me stay there until I’ve got myself sorted.”
“If you’d said that at the outset, it would have saved us both a lot of bother.” She withdrew the gun. “Saddle up and get in. I’m on my way to the shops; I’ll give you a lift. I’ll give you a lift back if you behave yourself.”
• • •
At about ten miles an hour the Morris Minor rattled, juddered and backfired its way along the winding road. Its driver seemed happily oblivious to the deafening racket of the car. She was too busy wiping the steamed up windscreen with the back of her hand and crashing the gears to worry about a little thing like hearing loss.
“Sorry about the gun,” she shouted at him. “But one can never be too careful. What was I supposed to do? I see a strange man standing in the middle of the road—you could have been anyone. What’s your name?”
“Ralph Shannon,” Clayton said. “Well, Shannon, you can call me George.”
“Is that Miss, Ms. or Mrs.?”
“Just George. And that’s Percy in the back.”
Percy? Who the hell was Percy? Clayton spun round. On the back seat was a large, murderous-looking rooster. His head was tilted and his eyes were as beady as those of the mad woman driving the car. A choice between death by rooster or a single gunshot; Clayton knew which he’d take any day of the week. The rooster glared threateningly at Clayton, then jerked his head and began scratching and pecking at the tattered seat. “Stop that at once, Percy!” the woman roared, making Clayton jump. “Or Shannon and I will have you for supper!” She turned to Clayton. “I had to bring him with me. He’s turned into a frightful sex pest and won’t leave the poor hens alone. He’s at them day and night.”
“Right,” said Clayton as though they were having a perfectly normal conversation. He stared intently ahead, despite being unable to see anything out of the windscreen. There was only one windscreen wiper and it was on the driver’s side.
“So where’s home?” she demanded. “London, I’m guessing. Am I right?”
“You might be.” She thought he looked like a Londoner in this garb? Or maybe that was the point; no local in his right mind would dress so preposterously.
“Of course I’m right. You have that worn-down manner only Londoners have. Had some kind of a breakdown, have you?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“You’re as jumpy as hell.”
“So would you be if you’d just had a gun shoved in your face.”
She thumped the steering with both hands and laughed out loud as though he’d said the funniest thing. He had to find a way to stop the old biddy asking so many questions. A thought occurred to him. “You said you’ve lived here all your life?”
“Do you know a girl called Alice Shoemaker? I believe she grew up here.”
“Shoemaker, you say. No, that name doesn’t ring a bell. I knew an Alice Barrett. The Barretts owned Cuckoo House years ago.”
“How many years ago was that?”
With a bloodcurdling scream of resistance from the engine, she changed gear and shot him a look. “Why do you want to know?”
“Evidently. Butwhyare you interested?”
“I…I met a girl the other day called Alice Shoemaker and she said she grew up at Cuckoo House.”
“Really? How old was she?”
“I’m not very good at guessing ages. Especially when it comes to women.”
“Don’t be pathetic. I’m looking for a rough ball-park figure. Imagine I have my gun to your head, and your life depends upon an answer. Was she in her twenties? Thirties? Fifties?”
Imagining all too well the gun pressed to his head, Clayton suddenly remembered exactly how old Alice was. “She’s thirty-one,” he said.
“That’s a very precise ball-park figure, but in that case I’d say you met Alice Barrett, as was. Where did you meet her? London? I always suspected that’s where she ran off to.”
“I met her at Cuckoo House.”
“Well, I never. Alice back at Cuckoo House. Mind you, I thought she’d show up one day.”
After another gear change and a thunderous explosion from the rear of the car, they juddered to an abrupt stop. Clayton’s seat belt did little to prevent him from very nearly slamming against the windscreen. Surely the car would never pass an MOT? But then its owner didn’t strike him as being the sort of person who would worry over such a minor detail.
“Right, Shannon, here we are. There’s a Co-op over there. A butcher’s next door, a grocer’s shop across the road and a baker’s right here where we’re parked.”
“Is there a bank?”
“In between the outdoor clothing shop and the Penny-Farthing cafe. Be back here in an hour. Any later and I’ll be gone and you’ll have to walk.”
• • •
The good news was that the rain had let up. Clayton was about to dispense with his hat and stuff it in a pocket when he thought better of it. The hat gave him something to hide beneath. Although, as he caught sight of his reflection in a shop window, he had to acknowledge that overall he stuck out like a very sore thumb. He wasn’t exactly blending in, was he? Most other people were sensibly dressed in ordinary coats and carried umbrellas.
It was midafternoon and the light was fading; illuminated shop windows shone invitingly. His first port of call was the bank. He needed some cash. This he acquired from a hole in the wall since the bank itself had closed for the day. He then progressed to the butcher’s. He wanted some more of those sausages Alice had bought him. There was a choice of three different varieties, so he bought two pounds of each. He could use the freezer back at Cuckoo House to store a fortnight’s worth of them. He did the same with bacon. And since the butcher also sold eggs, he bought a dozen of those, too.
Next it was on to the Co-op.
Peanut butter, peanut butter, he silently chanted to himself as he grabbed a trolley. He found it next to the pots of jam and marmalade and stripped the shelf of its entire stock, all three jars. He then worked methodically round the store, slinging items into the trolley. He was joining the queue for the checkout when he noticed the depleted racks of newspapers. He couldn’t stop himself. He added three tabloids to the basket and joined the queue.
It took an age to pay and, heavily laden with six bags of shopping, he hurried outside. He crossed the street to where he’d been instructed to meet the old woman.
But there was no sign of her. Or of the Morris Minor. He checked his watch. He was two minutes late.
• • •
Alice’s headlights picked out the lumbering figure ahead of her. Even before he turned round, she knew who it was and what she was going to do and say. After all, this was no accidental meeting; curiosity in all its grubby glory had drawn her here.
She slowed the car, pulled alongside him and lowered her window. “You’re lucky it’s stopped raining,” she said. “Want a lift?”
A grimace of tired relief passed across his face. “I’ll give you anything you want,” he groaned, “just so long as you get me back to Cuckoo House, preferably alive.”
She got out of the car, went round to the boot and opened it. She helped him to load the shopping inside, and noticed the newspapers protruding from one of the carrier bags.
He slumped in the passenger seat next to her. “You’re not used to exercise, are you?” she said, managing to stifle a smile at the sight of him in such a ridiculous get-up.
Ignoring her question, he said, “What brings you to this neck of the woods? The desire to gloat?”
“Oh, don’t be like that. Not when I’m doing such a splendid job of being your very own angel of mercy. Would ‘thank you’ be so very difficult for you to say?”
“With a little more feeling would be nice.”
“What do you want? Blood squeezed drop by drop from me?”
She smiled to herself and drove the rest of the journey in silence. When they reached the gate at Cuckoo House, she said, “You left it open; I wouldn’t have thought a man in your position would do that.”
He said nothing.
She drove through the gate, then stopped the car. She turned and looked at him. “Yes, that’s right, I’m waiting for you to get out and close it.”
Scowling, he did as she instructed.
When he was back in the car, he said, “What did you mean, a man in my position?”
“You tell me.” She saw a flicker of unease darken his eyes.
Up at the house, she helped him carry his shopping inside. “That’s a lot of peanut butter you’ve bought,” she remarked as she automatically started to unpack the bags for him while he shrugged off the enormous coat he’d been wearing.
“I thought I’d stockpile a few jars since I’ve developed an unaccountable craving for it.”
“I know what you mean; I was addicted to it as a child. I still slip back into my bad old ways now and then. It has to be the ultimate in comfort food, don’t you think?”
“Are you suggesting I’m in need of comfort?”
She held up her hands. “I’m suggesting nothing. Merely making polite conversation.”
When he made no effort to reply, she said, “Since I’m here, is there anything you’d like me to do for you?”
“I’ve dispensed with the agency.”
“I know. I was offering my services for free.”
“Free? There’s no such thing.”
“Not in your world maybe, but in mine there is.” She reached into the last remaining bag to unpack and pulled out the newspapers. The one she’d read at lunchtime was on the top. “Would you mind if I checked the television programmes for tonight, please?” Without waiting for him to respond, she opened the paper, but seeing the undisguised alarm in his face, she stopped what she was doing. It was unnecessarily cruel to tease him this way. She had no idea how much truth had been written about him in the papers, if any, but one thing she knew with unquestionable certainty, from first-hand experience, was that things were rarely as they first appeared. During her drive home from the studio she had wondered about his comment the other day that he’d been under a lot of stress lately. Had that been before his spectacular fall from grace or as a result of it? Stress was guaranteed to make a person act out of character and for all she knew his inability to write—as mentioned in the newspaper—might be the cause of his problems.
“I have a confession to make,” she said, deciding to come clean. “I found out earlier today who you really are. You’re Clayton Miller.”
He could not have looked more shocked.
“I read about you in the paper,” she explained, experiencing a rush of compassion for him. Seeing him like this, she couldn’t believe the worst of what she’d read. It just didn’t square up. He seemed no madder or more malicious than her. “It took me a while to make the connection,” she said, “but I eventually recognized you from the pictures.” She sounded as if she was apologizing for having recognized him.
He came over to her, held out his hand for the newspaper. “May I?”
She gave it to him, then watched him sink into the nearest chair. He flicked through the pages until he found what he was looking for. His hand flat on the table as if steadying himself, he began reading. Not knowing what else to do, Alice made herself useful. She filled the kettle, put it on the hob, then opened one of the packets of crumpets on the table. She slotted four into the Dualit toaster, found some plates and knives, a dish of butter in the fridge and lastly a jar of newly bought crunchy peanut butter. She then cleared the table of the shopping, taking care not to knock the paper that was being read so intently. The poor man now had his head in his hands.
The kettle began to whistle. She made the tea, the crumpets popped up and seconds later they were oozing a trillion calories a piece. She slid one of the plates in front of the man whose spirit she appeared to have broken. For the first time since he’d sat down, he looked up at her. “How do you like your tea?” she asked.
“Milk, no sugar,” he murmured.
She poured out two mugs, gave him one. Her hand resting on the back of a chair opposite, she said, “May I?”
“Isanyof it true?” she asked, inclining her head towards the newspaper.
“They’ve got my name right and the fact that I haven’t managed to write anything since Barry ended our partnership.”
“And the bit about you being responsible for them losing their baby?”
He raked his hands through his hair. “Stacey and Bazza say I’m responsible, so I must be.”
“But if you’re not, you’re just going to take what’s been written about you?”
“What would you do?”
She sighed. “I hate to admit it, but I’d run away and hide, just like you.”
“You would? You don’t strike me as the run-and-hide sort. Far from it.”
“My track record says otherwise. The circumstances weren’t entirely the same, but years ago, I ran and hid from—” she hesitated, searching for the right words. “Let’s just call it a difficult situation.”
“Was it something to do with living here?”
She took a bite of crumpet and chewed on it slowly and thoughtfully. “What makes you think that?” she said at length.
“Whilst you were putting two and two together about me today, I found out something about you. Your surname used to be Barrett, didn’t it?”
“How did you come across that?”
“I met a crazy old woman called George this afternoon.”
“Good God! She’s not still alive is she? She was a hundred and ten when I was a child.”
“She was very much alive. I stopped her car to ask for directions to the shops and she pulled a gun on me.”
Alice laughed. “A small handgun?”
“It didn’t look that small to me.”
“It’s a fake. She always used to ride around with it. She wasn’t by any chance still driving her beloved Morris Minor?”
“She was certainly driving a clapped out Morris Minor. Whether it was beloved I couldn’t say.”
“How extraordinary,” Alice pondered. “Georgina Harrington-Smythe still alive and kicking. Who’d have thought it?”
“Is that her real name?”
“Yes. But she only used to use it with people she didn’t like. If she’d introduced herself as George it means she took a shine to you.”
“I’m not sure she took that much of a shine to me. She didn’t hang around to give me a lift back.”
“I wouldn’t take that personally. How did she seem to you?”
“One word covers it: indomitable. Not unlike the friend she had with her. A sex pest of a rooster who goes by the name of Percy.”
Again Alice laughed. “That sounds exactly the kind of friend George would have.”
“They did seem ideally suited,” he agreed with an unexpected flash of lightness to his voice. “Can I ask you what you’re going to do now that you know who I am?” he added.
“What would you like me to do?”
“To keep quiet. To tell no one that I’m here.”
“Then that’s exactly what I shall do. You have my word on it.”
A shadow of wary doubt covered his face. “I haven’t cut any corners to get to this level of neurosis,” he said, “so I have to tell you that I’m obliged to ask why you would do that. Why would you keep schtum for me?”
“What can I say? I like to think I’m adept at reading between the lines and you seem the epitome of a man in need of a break in life. Plus, there’s something about you I like.” She felt her cheeks redden at the admission.
“You have a weakness for failures?”
“Now you’re just fishing for sympathy. You’re not a failure. You created one of the best sitcoms ever. One of my absolute favourites.”
He didn’t look especially flattered.
“I give you my word,” she said. “I won’t tell a soul. Who else knows you’re here?”
“Only my agent.”
“And his connection with the house?”
“He knows the Armstrongs, the current owners. He asked them if a friend of his could stay here for a while. Is the house very different from how you remembered it?”
“Yes,” she said simply. “You can’t imagine how different.” Or how it makes me feel being back here, she thought. So many memories. So many emotions. It was almost too much to take in, as if she couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge that she was really here. But then she had always been good at blocking out anything that was too painful to deal with. When her mother had died, she had hardly cried at all. She had taken her lead from the headmistress who had delivered the news—bluntly and to the point—assuming that was the way it had to be done. What tears she had shed, she had done so in private. Even when she had seen her father visibly upset she hadn’t shared her true feelings with him. One of them had to be strong, she had decided, and who else was there to support her father? It never occurred to her that anyone should have supported her. Nor had it occurred to her that she could admit how much she missed her mother. And anyway, apart from her father, who could she have talked to?
“Will you tell me how it happened?” she asked Clayton.
“How what happened?”
“What the papers are calling yourspectacular fall from grace.”
“Maybe. But first, I want to know more about you. Tell me about those circumstances that made you run and hide.”
She ran a finger round her buttery plate, then licked her finger. “It’s a very long story.”
“I’ve got time,” he said. “I’m not due anywhere for the foreseeable future, certainly not for the next few hours. How about you?”
Alice thought of what was waiting for her back at Dragonfly Cottage. Probably only another irresistible offer from Bob to turn down. But there was the slimmest of chances that James might call. He never had got around to saying whatever it was he’d wanted to share with her, and his parting words were to say he’d give her a ring. He hadn’t said when.
“No,” she said, “I’m not busy this evening.”
“Then let’s have another cup of tea and some more crumpets and you can tell me your story. If nothing else, it’ll take my mind off my predicament.”
They both got to their feet at the same time. Alice took charge of the toast and he poured the tea. And all the while she kidded herself that what she was about to tell Clayton was for his benefit, to help him escape his problems for a few hours, but deep down she knew that what she was about to embark upon was for her own benefit. Being back at Cuckoo House had done exactly what she had known it would. It had crystallized the past and awakened an ache deep inside of her.
They sat down again at the table.
“It was the cherry liqueurs that did it,” she said quietly, surprising herself that this should be her starting point.CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Alice’s stepmother, Julia Raphael-Barrett, had a vague, spacey manner. She drifted aimlessly about Cuckoo House as if she were lost. With hindsight, she probably was.
When her father brought his new bride to live at Cuckoo House, it was the first sighting Alice had of the woman who had replaced her mother. The wedding had taken place in London at Kensington Register Office while Alice was at school writing an essay about Charles I and his belief in the Divine Right of Kings.
Julia didn’t arrive alone. With her came her two children—Rufus and Natasha—and two items of furniture: a delicate antique dressing table and a matching stool with a pretty silk-covered seat. The furniture had been ineptly wrapped and tied to the roof of Bruce Barrett’s Jaguar and for Alice there had been something pitiful about the arrival of the upside-down dressing table and stool. With their graceful legs poking through the plastic wrapping, Alice could imagine the disgrace at being forced to travel all the way from London in such humiliating circumstances.
While the three strangers had stepped cautiously out of the car and looked guardedly about them at their new home, Alice’s father had made a great drama of hefting the furniture down from the roof, cursing loudly at one of the straps which threatened to get the better of him. He had then led the way with an embarrassing excess of enthusiasm and when he threw his arms around Alice and kissed her, she almost expected him to say, “Darling, I went to the pet shop and look what I came home with for you!” Laughing and joking, he ushered everyone into the house, issuing instructions as he went: introduce yourselves…make yourselves at home…put the kettle on, Alice. In an effort to calm things down, Alice had shyly offered to take Natasha and Rufus upstairs and show them their rooms.
It soon became apparent that, not unlike her predecessor, Julia had no interest in anything of a domestic nature and encouraged Alice, along with her own children, to do whatever they wanted rather than bother her. She didn’t mind if they left their clothes strewn on the floor of their bedrooms, or played music so loud the windows rattled, or made bonfires that got out of hand, or broke a window as a result of an energetic game of Ker-Plunk, or left trails of muddy footprints through the house.
In many ways, Alice had always had a free reign to do as she pleased, but sharing that freedom with Natasha and Rufus made it all the more enjoyable. Tasha, as she insisted Alice call her, was the same age as Alice—thirteen—and Rufus was three years older. Whereas Tasha was open and direct, Rufus was quiet and withdrawn. He scowled a lot and was often astonishingly rude. Alice developed an instant crush on him.
It was her first real crush and she kept it hidden; he was her stepbrother, after all. He was easily the best-looking boy she had ever set eyes on. He was tall—almost as tall as Alice’s father—broad-shouldered and he had the most amazing blue eyes. His skin had an olive hue, as did Tasha’s, and his hair was very dark. His hand was constantly pushing his dangly fringe out of his eyes. He excelled at whatever he put his mind to, particularly sport, and the window sills in his bedroom at Cuckoo House were devoted to his collection of cups, shields and awards for all his achievements—tennis, cross country, high jump, long jump and cricket. He had an enormous appetite, yet never gained any weight, and Alice frequently found herself in the kitchen late at night making him a sandwich.
Tasha idolized her brother, but that didn’t stop her from teasing him or sneaking into his room to “borrow” his things. Rufus would rant and rave that he couldn’t find his calculator or the CD he’d just bought and Alice would be torn between wanting to be the one who “found” the missing object and therefore rewarded by being in Rufus’s good books, or being in cahoots with Tasha.
Alice had no idea why her father had married Julia, or how they’d met, but she was glad he had because for the first time in her life, she had a proper best friend and a sister all rolled into one. “We’ll be like twins,” Tasha announced one day. “We’ll even pretend we are to anyone who hasn’t met us before.”
“But we don’t look anything alike. We might both have dark hair,” Alice had conceded, “but I’m pale and freckly and you’re…you’re beautiful.”
There was no denying the disparity. According to Julia, who was a redhead with skin paler than Alice’s, Tasha and Rufus had inherited their looks from their father, who had been half French. Tasha’s skin was a fraction darker than her brother’s but here eyes were the same extraordinary blue. Her nearly black hair was long and silky and Alice loved to brush and comb it. No matter how hard she tried, she could never get her own hair to fall in the same sleek way that Tasha’s did; it was much too thick and wavy. Tasha had shown Alice photographs of her father and explained that he had died two years ago in a skiing accident in Switzerland. Rarely did Alice hear Rufus talk about his father, but then seldom did she refer to her mother.
That summer was one of the happiest times for Alice. There were no arguments between her father and Julia, no screaming matches and no plates or ornaments thrown. She was not a voluble or argumentative woman, but somehow Julia managed to get her way on most things. It was only later that Alice came to realize that this was more to do with her father being on his best behaviour for his new wife than Julia having an easygoing temperament.
At Julia’s insistence they acquired a cook. Mrs. Randall came in five days a week and her arrival at Cuckoo House transformed Alice’s eating habits. Used to her mother’s cack-handed attempts, or those of a teenage au pair, she had been a picky eater and often ate nothing but toast and peanut butter. But the delicious meals that Mrs. Randall produced were a revelation. Melt-in-the-mouth cakes and pastries appeared, as did wonderful soups, pies and casseroles. Herbs were used, and not just from dusty little glass jars that were years old. These were real herbs that Mrs. Randall grew in pots on the window sill. Everything was homemade—Alice’s mother had once made an inedible cake using a shop-bought cake mix—and Alice enjoyed watching Mrs. Randall at work. She found it comforting to watch the magical process happen before her eyes, breathing in the tantalizing smells, enjoying the warm steamy environment. She would sit in rapt attention as Mrs. Randall weighed ingredients, chopped, mixed and rolled, sending little puffs of flour or icing sugar into the air. If Alice was lucky, she would be allowed to use the shaped pastry cutters, or better still, given a spoon to lick clean the mixing bowl. Tasha, who didn’t know what all the fuss was about and considered herself too grown up for such things, left Alice to it.
The summer passed and in September Tasha switched schools to the boarding school that Alice attended. For a while they convinced everyone that Tasha was Alice’s long-lost sister who had been kidnapped at birth. When they started to over-exaggerate the story—Tasha had spent several years being brought up in a Bedouin tent in the desert—the other girls smelt a rat and refused to believe anything they said. Tasha had said it was a relief; she’d grown tired of trying to remember their story. But Alice had been disappointed; she’d had all sorts of further embellishments planned.
Rufus had refused point blank to consider moving schools and with ten grade-A GCSEs under his belt, he stayed at his current boarding school in Somerset and moved up into the lower sixth. His subjects were all science based; he was going to be a doctor. Alice would often daydream about him examining her. The thought of him doing so caused a slow thud in her chest and a sudden awareness of her body. In particular its many shortcomings. Why couldn’t she have a chest more like Tasha’s? Why did hers have to be so flat? And her nose too snubbed. And her chin too pointy. And why, oh why, did she have to have freckles? Rufus was always teasing her about them. She had got so upset on one occasion, she had taken a nail brush to the bridge of her nose to rid herself of the horrible things.
“What the hell have you done to your face?” demanded Rufus when she finally emerged from the bathroom and sat down to supper.
“Yes,” chimed in Tasha, “you’re very red. Is that blood on your nose?”
Oh, the shame!
The next morning she awoke to find that her nose looked like it had been pebbledashed during the night; it was a mass of pin-prick scabs.
As well as Mrs. Randall, they now had her husband to keep the garden looking more like a garden and less like a wilderness. He mended the old greenhouse and at his wife’s suggestion, he created two large fruit and vegetable plots.
Alice’s father’s level of interest in the running of the house was as insignificant as it had always been, and once Julia was sure that all responsibility for the house and the children lay securely in the hands of others—an au pair would materialize during the school holidays—she washed her hands of them. It was then that she picked out a room for her own private use upstairs and turned it into what she called her sanctuary. It was where she could go to escape the hurly-burly of three children. She read in there, took naps late in the afternoon and listened to music. Mostly classical and more often than not operas by Puccini. Her favourite books all seemed to revolve around tragic heroines such as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.
There were times when Tasha could be openly critical of her mother. “I’m never going to be like her when I grow up,” she would say. “She’s so pathetically useless. I’m going to do something with my life. I don’t want to be just a wife and mother.” Rufus, on the other hand, had a much closer relationship with their mother and if he ever heard his sister criticising Julia, he would rebuke her severely.
It was following one of Tasha’s declarations that she was going to do something worthwhile with her life, that Alice shared with her her dream to be an actress. “An actress,” repeated Tasha, her eyes wide. “What a brilliant idea! Why don’t we both be actresses?”
So it was agreed, she and Tasha would both be big stars. They rushed to tell Rufus the news. He scoffed at their excitement. But even so, the following term he accompanied Julia to see them both in their school production ofA Midsummer Night’s Dream—Alice’s father couldn’t make it; he was away on a photographic trip. Rufus had been surprisingly generous with his praise and had actually said they were the two best things about the production. Alice had basked in his words but Tasha had ruined it by saying that what he’d meant was that it was all relative, that they were only marginally better than the awfulness of the play. It was true that the girl playing Puck kept muddling up her lines and that the scenery had wobbled and the lights hadn’t worked properly, but the play hadn’t been that bad.
Rufus’s appearance at their school caused a massive stir. For weeks afterwards, Tasha and Alice were pestered by girls wanting to know all about the heart-achingly good-looking Rufus Raphael-Barrett. Tasha was a mixture of nonchalance (“oh, that’s just my silly old brother”) and shining pride. Alice, on the other hand, felt a faint stirring of jealousy. It was a new phenomenon for her and she wasn’t at all sure she liked it.
Exactly a year after they’d come to live at Cuckoo House, Tasha confided in Alice that Rufus hadn’t approved of his mother marrying Alice’s father. In his opinion, Bruce Barrett wasn’t good enough for his mother. What’s more, he believed Bruce wasn’t right in the head. Ever quick to defend her father, Alice had said, “But he’s a brilliant photographer,” as if this explained everything. But Tasha sided with her brother and said that surely Alice had to admit that he wasn’t normal.
From then on, Alice observed her father through new eyes. Suddenly she could see that his behaviour was far from normal. She was so used to his wildness and unpredictable ways that she had never thought anything of it. Now she began to cringe whenever he stamped about the house and yelled uncontrollably at the top of his voice, declaring that he was living with a houseful of idiots. She cringed too when Julia was out and he offered to show the au pair his darkroom. It was obvious to Alice that the honeymoon period of her father’s good behaviour had passed.
For the first time in her life, Alice was ashamed of her father and she hated herself for it. Never had she felt more confused or upset.
It was a mortifying realization to discover that your father wasn’t normal.
Nothing could have proved Rufus and Natasha’s point more than when Alice’s father woke them early one morning during the Christmas holiday and announced that he was taking them on a mystery outing. “I’m not going anywhere,” Rufus muttered crossly. He caved in when Alice and Tasha, unaccountably consumed with excitement, bounced on his bed and begged him to come with them.
“It won’t be any fun without you,” Tasha pleaded.
“No dice,” he mumbled in a muffled voice from beneath his pillow. “I’ve got revision to do for my mocks.”
“Please come,” Alice tried, “you know how silly my father can be. He’ll behave himself if you’re with us.”
His hair sticking up all over his head, Rufus emerged from under his pillow. “God you’re right, Alice. Who knows what danger he’ll put you both in without a responsible adult around?”
Alice was shocked that she’d resorted to such a tactic, reinforcing Rufus’s view that her father was a dangerous lunatic, but at the same time she was delighted that Rufus would be joining them.
Julia declined to come, claiming she wasn’t feeling well; a headache. She suffered from a lot of headaches these days. The kind that meant she had to spend hours and hours alone in her sanctuary. She waved them off with a fluttery hand.
Alice had been on many mystery outings with her father. There were two that stuck in her mind. The day after her sixth birthday he had driven her to London. Except, of course, she hadn’t had a clue where they were going because that was all part of the game. On this particular trip, when excitement had eventually given way to tiredness, she had fallen asleep on the back seat of the car. When she woke up her father was pointing out of the window and saying, “Look, Alice, there’s Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.” London. She was inLondon!Her father often visited with his work, as did her mother, but it was her father who had promised to bring her one day. And now he had.
They had driven round and round. She saw Buckingham Palace, The Royal Albert Hall, Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column, Downing Street, and a man peeing in the gutter. That was her abiding memory. It was what she rushed to tell her mother when, gone midnight, they arrived home. “Mummy, Mummy,” she blurted out, “I saw a man doing a number one in the street!”
“It wasn’t your father, was it?” her mother had asked. Then in a hissy voice that Alice knew she wasn’t supposed to hear and which immediately took the shine off the day, her mother had said to her father, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me you were taking off for the day? I didn’t have a clue where you were. I was worried.”
A long time later, Alice couldn’t remember precisely when or exactly where they had gone, but her father had taken her to Scotland. They had driven for what seemed like for ever and all she could really remember of the trip was that her father had stopped for petrol on the motorway and bought two cans of Coke, a large box of Quality Street and some egg and cress sandwiches which were gritty with eggshell. He had thrown them out of the window in disgust only to have a car overtake, driven by a woman who was gesticulating angrily at him—one of the sandwiches had glued itself to her bonnet. Alice and her father had laughed collusively; her father had even waved back at the irate woman. He had also bought a cassette at the motorway service station and played it on a continuous loop throughout the long journey there and back. Alice’s head had been spinning with songs by the Bee Gees when they eventually arrived home.
They never got out of the car when they reached their destination; they just cruised around, leaning out of the car window whenever there was something of interest to look at. Her father said the point of the outing had nothing to do with their final destination; it was all about the journey.
In the car now, on a bitterly cold December morning, Rufus in the front with her father—he’d bought a biology textbook with him to revise from—and Alice and Tasha in the back with a picnic hamper, Alice wasn’t feeling as excited as she had been earlier when she’d been bouncing on Rufus’s bed. She was feeling nauseous with anxiety. What if Tasha and Rufus didn’t enjoy the outing? What if they didn’t understand?
Then a worse thought occurred to her. What ifshedidn’t understand anymore? What if it would prove to be just a boring long drive somewhere? She realized then that it could never be like it used to be. She wasn’t a young child anymore; she and Tasha were fourteen and Rufus was seventeen. Why hadn’t she tried to stop her father? It was all going to go horribly wrong. The day would turn out to be a disaster.
She closed her eyes and willed her father somehow to make the trip special.
Fifteen minutes into the journey and the day really was destined to be a disaster.
It started when Rufus’s Nirvana cassette jammed in the tape player, just as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started. He tried to eject it and when it got stuck—half in, half out—he yanked on it only to end up with the cassette in his hand and the tape unwinding inside the machine. He swore loudly, left the cassette dangling and threw himself back in his seat. He kicked at the dashboard. Not once, but twice.
“Hey, watch the car!” The Jaguar, like the one Inspector Morse drove around in, was Dad’s pride and joy. Yet as much as he loved driving it, he never cleaned or polished it; his love didn’t stretch that far. Instead, once a month he took it to a garage where it was cleaned inside and out. Occasionally, he’d just go and sit in it. It was where he liked to think, he said.
“Why should I?” retaliated Rufus. “It’s a bloody wreck, this car. It should be crushed for scrap metal. My father wouldn’t have been seen dead in a heap like this.”
“Then it’s a good thing he’s been spared the ignominy by dying so conveniently.”
Alice’s father laughed nastily. “Takes one to know one.” He then wound down his window and chucked out Rufus’s Nirvana cassette. But, of course, it was still attached to the tape machine and wasn’t going anywhere far. It clattered noisily against the outside of the car.
“You mad crazy bastard!” yelled Rufus. He gave the dashboard another vicious kick and the glove compartment popped open. Out fell a magazine. Rufus leaned forward to pick it up. From where she was sitting in the back, Alice saw exactly what kind of magazine it was. Her face turned the colour of beetroot.
Quick as a flash, her father snatched the magazine out of Rufus’s hands and threw that the way of the cassette. The cassette was still clattering frantically against the side of the car, somewhere near the back of it now. It sounded like someone knocking desperately to get in with them.Let me in! Let me in!
Let me out, thought Alice miserably.
Rufus smirked. “Anything else you want to throw out of the window, my pervy stepdad?”
“You realize, don’t you, that my silence will cost you?”
“Rufus, dear boy, just so as you know, on the outside I might look the picture of cool composure but on the inside you’re making me shake with fear.”
“Oh, go to hell!”
Fraught with the need to intervene, to make the awful atmosphere go away, Alice leaned forward. “Dad, can we stop please?”
“Why?” he snapped.
“We need to rescue Rufus’s cassette or it will ruin the paintwork on your car.”
Her father looked at her in the rear-view mirror. “Good thought, Alice. At least someone cares about my car.”
Luckily Tasha had missed the entire exchange—she was listening to Take That on her Walkman with her eyes closed—and only opened them when the car came to a stop. “Are we here, then?” She asked, removing the headphones from her ears.
“No such bloody luck,” Rufus muttered.
Alice got out of the car and retrieved the tangled mess of tape. She bundled it up and passed it to her father, who then shoved it unceremoniously onto Rufus’s lap.
“What happened to that?” asked Tasha.
“Mr. Temper-Temper here happened, that’s what!” Rufus said through gritted teeth.
• • •
They had been driving for an hour when they ran out of petrol and ground to a halt in a deserted country lane.
An empty tank wasn’t Alice’s father’s immediate thought. Cursing and swearing, he marched round to the front of the car and threw open the bonnet.
Nobody inside the car moved.
“It’s turning out to be quite a day, isn’t it?” Rufus said. His voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Does your father have the first idea about engines, Alice?”
“Um…I’m not really sure.”
“I’ll take that as a no.”
Five minutes later and the reason for the breakdown became clear: they were out of petrol—or gas, as Alice’s father, for some strange reason, liked to call it.
“And naturally you’ve got an emergency can of petrol in the boot?” Rufus enquired. He managed to make his question sound both helpful and mockingly sceptical.
“Why don’t we have our picnic now?” Alice intervened once more. She knew very well there was about as much chance of there being an emergency can of petrol in the boot as there was of Rufus ever thinking well of her father. Or of Rufus ever loving her in the way she desperately wanted him to.
Wiping his oily hands on the front of his jeans, her father smiled. “As a matter of fact, Rufus, I do have an emergency supply of gas. Yeah, I thought that would wipe the smirk off your pretty-boy face.”
Bowled over with surprise, Alice felt like hugging her father. She stepped out of the car and went round to the boot with him to see if she could help.
Under a tatty, oiled-stained tartan blanket, there was a red metal can. “Thank goodness for that,” she said.
“Don’t tell me you doubted me, Alice?”
“Of course not, Dad.”
He grinned and unscrewed the black cap. He peered inside the can, then shook it. “Oh, shit!” he said. “It’s empty.”
“No!” she cried. “It can’t be!” She snatched it from him and shook it herself.
“Sorry, Alice. Looks like I’ve ruined the day.”
She swallowed back something that felt like tearful anger. “Couldn’t you walk to the nearest garage and get it filled?”
He scratched his head, looked about him vaguely. “I could, I suppose.” Frowning and surveying the deserted road to his right and to his left, he scratched his head some more as if weighing up the pros and cons of her suggestion. Then: “Can you cover for me?”
“How do you mean?”
“Tell smart arse Rufus that…that there was a dead mouse in the can and we couldn’t use it. You’re good with stories; you’ll easily convince him.”
“He’s not a smart arse, Dad.” Her tone was tight and defensive.
Her father looked at her doubtfully and shrugged. “If you say so. Right, I’ll be off.”
“Haven’t you brought a coat?”
He wrinkled his nose. “Didn’t think I’d need one.”
“But it’s freezing.”
It was; the sky was grey and low with the threat of snow. Two minutes out of the car and she was shivering with cold.
“I’ll be fine. Tootle-pip!”
Alice watched him saunter off, the empty can swinging from his arm. She then got back into the relative warmth of the Jag.
“So,” Rufus said with weighty emphasis. “Just as I suspected, we have a zero fuel situation.”
“There was a dead mouse in the can,” Alice replied without hesitation. “It would have been dangerous to use the petrol when it was contaminated. It would have ruined the engine.”
Rufus slowly turned round to face her. His face was dark and hopelessly handsome. “And just how did the mouse get into the can in the first place?” he asked. “Was the lid not screwed on properly?”
Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! She wanted to shout at him. Stop making me choose between you and my father! To her horror and shame she burst into tears.
“Now see what you’ve done!” Tasha said. She put her arm around Alice, which made her cry all the more.
“I’m sorry, Alice,” Rufus said. “Really I am. Don’t make the day any worse for me than it already is by crying. I couldn’t stand that.”
“Shut up, Rufus!”
“I’m…I’m sorry,” Alice blubbed with confused embarrassment. She couldn’t recall every crying in front of anyone. “I don’t…I don’t even know why I’m crying.”
“I expect it’s just that time of the month for you,” Rufus said matter of factly. “It’s well known that women lose all sense of proportion when—”
“RUFUS!” said Tasha. “If you don’t shut up, I swear to God, I will personally throttle you.” Then more gently, she said, “Alice, how about something to eat from the picnic? That’ll make you feel better, won’t it?”
Calmer now, Alice managed a small nod. She found a tissue tucked inside her sleeve and blew her nose loudly. “Sorry,” she said again. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“I do,” Tasha said with a laugh. “My brother did. He can be a right pain at times. Isn’t that true, Rufus?”
Rufus snorted a laugh and smiled wickedly. “Me, oh, I’m a total tosser. Take no notice, Alice. Here, come and sit in the front with me. Tasha can act as waitress and serve us from the back, which is, of course, just where she belongs. And since there’s no heat, perhaps it would be a good idea if we put on our coats, girls.”
Alice did as Rufus said; she put on her coat and slipped into the driver’s seat. Just as Tasha had done moments before, Rufus put his arm around her. “There, that’s better, isn’t it?”
She didn’t know what he was really referring to, but everything did indeed now feel better. “I’m sorry about your cassette,” she said.
He cast a casual glance in the direction of the footwell where his Nirvana cassette now lay in a tangled mess. “No worries, I can easily replace it. It’s no big deal.”
“And I’m sorry about my father. He doesn’t mean half the things he says.”
“I’m not so sure about that. But you have to admit, his behaviour is not that of a normal sane man, is it? He’s a destructive force if you want my honest opinion. I’m just glad he’s not my real father. But none of that’s your fault, Alice, so no more apologizing.” He put a finger to her chin and turned her face towards him. He stared intently at her, his gaze piercing right through her. “OK?”
Lost in the depths of his extraordinary blue eyes, and thinking that she could never love anyone else as much as she loved Rufus, she whispered, “OK.”
He smiled and she felt something well up inside her. Then her heart exploded. She had never seen him smile at her quite that way before. Was she imagining it, or was it possible that she’d got it wrong, that he could love her?
“Pork pie anyone?”
Alice started at Tasha’s voice. She’d forgotten that they weren’t alone. She’d forgotten everything, that they were miles from anywhere stuck in a freezing cold car, waiting for her father to return. She’d even forgotten all that had gone before. All that was important was the way Rufus had smiled at her.
And the way he was still smiling at her.CHAPTER FIFTEEN
Money was a peculiar thing. Some people never referred to it, while others, like Tasha, were always going on about it.
George gave the impression of not having a bean to her name but the rumour was she was loaded. She had lived at Well House since time began and whenever something went wrong with the place, she fixed the problem herself. It was patched up like a ragged patchwork cushion and inside it was even untidier than Cuckoo House.
She grew most of what she ate, and occasionally kept pigs and sheep. For as long as Alice could remember, George had supplied her family with eggs and when she was home from school and the weather was fine, it had been Alice’s job to fetch them. When it rained George would make the delivery herself in her Morris Minor.
Tasha didn’t always go with Alice to fetch the eggs; she said she didn’t like the smell of George’s house. The chickens the old woman kept were given free rein to roam wherever they pleased and that included the house. It seemed perfectly normal to Alice to share a chair with a fluffy bantam but Tasha thought it was anything but normal. She also doubted that George had any money. “If she really was sitting on a pile of money, don’t you think she’d use it to do something about the hovel she lives in?” she argued. “Not to mention do something about her awful appearance.”
“Her priorities aren’t the same as other people’s,” Alice tried to explain. She rather liked the way George lived. The woman didn’t seem to give a damn about anything. She just quietly got on with enjoying her life. She never bothered anyone else and in return expected others not to bother her.
In contrast, Tasha had always given the impression that there was plenty of money in her family—there were aunts, uncles and grandparents who, in Tasha’s own words, were all amazingly well off. Alice had met a number of these relatives in the three years since her father had married Julia, and their lives did indeed appear quite glamorous compared to theirs; they regularly jetted off on exotic holidays to the Caribbean and the ski slopes of France and Switzerland. Sometimes they invited Julia and Tasha and Rufus to join them. One aunt had extended an invitation to include Alice but two days before they were due to go away, Alice had developed an ear infection and the doctor had banned her from flying for fear of her perforating her eardrum.
When Alice’s mother had been alive, family holidays had been non-existent. Her parents hadn’t cared for the concept; they were perfectly happy to stay at home. They had encouraged Alice to go on the various trips school offered but as far as they were concerned they already spent enough time away from Cuckoo House—her father travelling the world taking photographs and her mother travelling backwards and forwards to London every week. It was a way of life Alice had never once questioned. After all, she was quite happy with how things were. Tasha said she was too easygoing for her own good. Maybe she was. Maybe that was why she hadn’t questioned Tasha’s assertion that her mother was as wealthy as the rest of her family. Once or twice Rufus had even hinted that Alice’s father had married Julia for her money.
But yesterday afternoon, when Alice had overheard a conversation between Rufus and his mother, that assertion was proved wrong.
Home from university for the Easter holidays—he was now studying medicine in London—Rufus had been asking his mother for money to buy a car now that he’d passed his driving test. Alice hadn’t intended to listen in on the conversation but there was something in Julia’s tone that made her hover behind the slightly open door.
“I can’t, Rufus,” Alice had heard his mother say. “I simply don’t have the money to buy you a car.”
“What do you mean you don’t have the money? What about Dad’s money?”
“It really wasn’t that much, and what there was has gone.”
“Please don’t badger me. And you must promise not to tell Natasha anything about this. I don’t want her upset.”
“But Mum, you’re not seriously telling me there’s nothing of what Dad left us?”
“I’ve already told you, there wasn’t that much, what with death duties and—”
“To hell with death duties! Dad wouldn’t have done this to us. I know he wouldn’t.”
“Rufus, please, just leave things be.”
“No! No I won’t! Tell me exactly where the money has gone. Oh my God, you’re not saying that fool of a man you married, the man who has as much financial acumen as a racoon, has taken it from you, are you? Because if that’s the case, I’ll bloody well—”
“Calm down, Rufus. Bruce hasn’t done anything. But darling, these things are complicated. Why can’t you just accept that our life is very different from how it used to be?”
“Please don’t patronize me, Mum. Just tell me the truth.”
There was a sigh, a rustle, and then: “Rufus, the truth of the matter is, your father left us barely any money at all. I’m sorry, but he just wasn’t the successful businessman you thought he was. In fact, he should never have gone into business; he really wasn’t suited to it. He was too quick to think well of people and in turn, sadly those people were only too quick to take advantage of his good will.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“Because you adored your father and I didn’t want you to think badly of him.”
There was a long pause and then Rufus said, “Why did you marry Bruce?”
“Why do you think? I wanted a secure future for you and Natasha.”
“But your family…Dad’s family, they would have helped us. Surely, you only had to ask and they would have—”
“I didn’t want them to know the truth,” Julia interrupted. “I don’t want them treating us as the poor branch of the family. Can you honestly say you would have welcomed them looking down on us?”
“So what you’re saying is that you married a raving lunatic to save face?”
“In that case, I’ll ask Bruce to buy me a car.”
Rufus’s voice was flat.
At the sound of a long silence and then crying—Julia crying—Alice had crept silently away to her bedroom. She had lain on the bed, her hands clasped behind her head as she stared up at the ceiling. Had her father any inkling of what he’d got himself into?
• • •
It was the first warm and sunny day of April, and Alice and Tasha were walking to Well House to fetch some eggs for Mrs. Randall, who had promised to make Alice her favourite lemon drizzle cake. Having kept what she knew to herself for two whole days, Alice was bursting with the need to tell Tasha what she’d overheard. But on a sudden whim to accompany her, Tasha was talking nineteen to the dozen and there wasn’t a hope of getting a word in edgeways. Perhaps it was just as well. Better to let Tasha believe in a lie than know the truth. Besides, they had more important things to think about.
When she and Natasha returned to school after the Easter break they would have their GCSEs to get through. If all went to plan, they were planning on taking the same A-level subjects and then going onto university together to study English Literature. After they graduated they would then get a place at drama school in London—Guildhall was their first choice. They had sent off for all the relevant information and whenever Alice looked at the prospectus for Guildhall, she experienced a shivery thrill.
Tasha had been all for skipping university and going straight to drama school, but Rufus had stepped in and advised against it. “What if you don’t make it in the acting world?” he’d asked. “What then? A degree will be a great fallback option.”
Alice suspected that the reason Tasha had suggested what she had was because exams didn’t come easily to her. “I’m not like you,” she often grumbled to Alice. “You have a photographic memory.”
This wasn’t strictly true. Yes, Alice had a good memory, but the way she learned things was by reading them to herself in a voice inside her head other than her own. For maths she had her father’s megaphone voice booming inside her head; for biology and chemistry it was Rufus’s voice, and for all the remaining subjects she mimicked her teachers’ voices.
Her skill for mimicry was better than ever and Rufus loved her impersonations. She could do a great Princess of Wales and her Margaret Thatcher always made him laugh. As a joke, and at Tasha’s suggestion, she had once phoned him when he was away at university and pretended to be his mother. She had totally fooled him and it was only when he heard Tasha giggling in the background that he had realized he’d been set up. He’d seen the funny side of it, thank goodness.
She loved being able to make him laugh. When that happened, for that brief moment, it was as if she was at the centre of his world. When she acted in one of the school productions, in her mind she was acting solely for him. It wasn’t always possible for him to get away from London to come and see her and Tasha perform, but when he did, he was always generous with his praise and encouragement. He still attracted a huge amount of interest when he showed up at their school and Tasha teased him mercilessly for it. She also teased him because he didn’t have a girlfriend. He’d retaliated once by saying, “Of course I have a girlfriend; Alice is my girlfriend, isn’t that right, Alice?”
She had known that he was joking, but blushing from head to toe, she hadn’t been able to answer him. Tasha had pulled a face. “Ee-uw, that’s sick! Alice can’t be your girlfriend, she’s your stepsister.”
“We’re not blood related so there’s nothing sick about it,” he’d said, putting his arm around Alice and holding her tight.
Alice had no idea if Rufus knew how she felt about him, but she was determined not to reveal her feelings until she was at least eighteen. If she did it now, he’d dismiss her love out of hand. He would accuse her of childish infatuation. There were several girls in their year at school who had boyfriends three years older than they were, but as they said themselves, they were hardly serious about the relationships they were involved in. It was just a bit of fun, they said, easy come, easy go.
But Alice wanted more than that. So much more. She wanted Rufus to love her. A long time ago she had sneaked into his room while he’d been away in London and had helped herself to one of his T-shirts. She slept with it every night, breathing in the musky scent of him.
It was a two-mile walk across the fields to Well House and after a long and dreary winter, the land was showing signs of slowly coming to life. All along the hillside, gorse bushes were pinpricked with yellow and gold and in the distance newborn lambs bleated and gambolled in the sunshine.
When they reached their destination they found George at the front of the house at the top of a ladder painting a window frame. “Be with you in a tick,” she shouted down to them. “Why don’t you go inside and make yourself at home. Oh, and put the kettle on while you’re about it.”
Standing in the kitchen where haphazard piles of books, tools, pots of paint and crockery vied for space, Tasha wrinkled her nose. “How does she put up with the stink? It can’t be healthy.”
“It’s not that bad,” Alice said absently from the sink where she was filling the kettle. Through the open window, a hen that was perched on the sill outside poked its head in. “Hello,” Alice said. “And what’s your name?”
Tasha tutted. “You’re as crazy as she is.”
“Crazy as who?” asked George, coming into the kitchen. She was wearing a pair of mud-caked wellington boots and tucked into them were the baggy legs of scruffy workman’s overalls. Her short, mannish hair was partially covered by a scarf tied around her head. This was standard attire for her and it reminded Alice of those Land Girls she had seen in a history book at school. It was always possible that George had actually been a Land Girl. A very small one, at that. The top of her head was on a level with Alice’s shoulder.
“As nuts as a girl in our class at school,” Alice ad-libbed diplomatically.
George put the paintbrush she’d been using into a jam jar of murky-coloured liquid on the kitchen table. “You’re the least crazy person I know, Alice,” she said. “I’d go so far as to say you’re sanest person I know. How’s that father of yours? Home or away?”
“Just back from a trip of Iceland.”
“Be sure to give him my regards. Now then, who’s for a cup of coffee? I have some shortbread knocking around somewhere.”
“We can’t really stop for long,” Tasha said. “We just came for the eggs.”
George swivelled round to look at Tasha, as if she had only just noticed she was in the room. “In that case, don’t let me keep you. The eggs are in the box in the usual place.”
“I’m sure we could stay for a few minutes,” Alice placated. She was fond of George. She had the uneasy feeling, though, that George didn’t care for Tasha too much.
“All right,” Tasha conceded grudgingly and thew Alice one of her looks—the look that said,What on earth were you thinking?“But we can’t stay too long; we’ve got revision to do.”
George muttered something Alice didn’t catch and went over to the kettle that was now boiling.
• • •
Tasha was in a tetchy mood when they left to go home. “There’s no excuse for that woman allowing herself to live in such squalor. The crime of it is, that house could actually be turned into something half decent. If it was mine, I’d spend a fortune on it and make it really special.”
“It’s her house,” Alice said quietly. “She can live how she wants to.”
“I could understand it if she really was poor,” Tasha carried on. “But you said yourself, she’s got money. Lots of it.”
“What? Like your family?”
Tasha turned her head sharply. “What’s up with you?”
“Nothing’s up with me.”
“Yes there is. You’re in a foul mood.”
“No I’m not. I just don’t like you criticising George. What harm has she ever done to you?”
“Well, if that’s how you feel, I shan’t bother to come with you again. To be honest, it will be a massive relief. Mum’s never been happy about me going inside that house. She reckons it has more germs than a public lavatory.”
“But she’s happy enough to eat George’s eggs,” Alice muttered.
“What’s got into you? You’re being a right bitch!”
On the verge of saying something she knew she would regret, Alice clamped her lips tightly shut and walked on fast. Until now she hadn’t realized just how angry Julia and Rufus’s conversation had made her feel. Her father was being used. He was nothing but a source of money to Julia. OK, he had his faults, Alice would be the first to admit that, but did he deserve to be conned?
Stomping across the fields, Alice experienced a sudden longing for her mother. Her parents may have fought like mad, but there had been a predictable and honest madness to their relationship. Neither one of them had pretended to be anything other than the person they were.
• • •
Alice wasn’t the only one to be in a bad mood. Back at Cuckoo House, Rufus was in a furious temper and was refusing to say why. What was more, he was leaving. He was in his room, packing to go and stay with a friend.
Alice climbed the stairs to the top of the house and knocked on the door of her father’s darkroom. When he let her in and she’d adjusted her eyes to the darkness, she asked him if he knew what had upset Rufus. He laughed.
“Cheeky sod demanded I bought him a car. He even tried to blackmail me. I told him to get lost and buy himself a bike. Does he think I’m made of money? Nobody bought me a car when I was that age.”
“What did he try to blackmail you about?”
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with.” He returned his attention to what he must have been doing before she had disturbed him. Scrutinizing the photographs that were pegged above his head, he said, “What do you think of these, Alice?”
“Are they from Iceland?” she asked, looking at a photograph of what could have been the surface of the moon.
“They certainly are. I haven’t lost my touch, have I? Am I a genius, or what?”
She forced herself to smile. “You’re a genius, Dad.”
“Right, that’s enough flattery. Off you go and play.”
“Dad, I’m sixteen. I don’tplayanymore.”
“Oh, Alice, that’s the saddest thing I ever heard. We’re never too old to play. Now bugger off and let me get on.”
• • •
Tasha was upset her brother was leaving so suddenly and she kept asking him why he was going. He wouldn’t say.
When it was almost time for Rufus to go—he’d called for a taxi to take him to the station, refusing his mother’s offer to drive him—he knocked on Alice’s door. She let him in, but couldn’t look him in the eye. She was angry with her father for being the cause of Rufus’s departure, but she was also angry with Rufus for behaving like a spoiled child. She wanted to bang their heads together.
“I know why you’re going,” she said, going over to the turret and sitting in her great aunt Eliza’s rocking chair. “Dad told me.”
He came and stood in the window in front of her. Sunlight poured in on him, making his black hair shine iridescently like the feathers of a raven. He stared out at the view, then turned to face her. “I know he’s your father and you’ll always take his side, but have you ever thought how difficult it must be for me? He hates me.”
“Don’t exaggerate. He doesn’t hate you. He doesn’t hate anyone.”
“You’re wrong. He hates me because…because he knows how I really feel about you.”
Alice stopped rocking and held her breath. “What do you mean?”
He knelt in front of her, tipped the chair towards him and took her face in his hands. “Your father doesn’t think I’m good enough for his only daughter. It’s possible he could be right.” Brushing the hair from her face, Rufus closed the gap between them and kissed her. Alice kept her eyes open, not wanting to miss a second of the single most important moment of her life.
He pulled away, his eyes lowered. “I promised myself I wouldn’t do that.”
She breathed out. “Why?”
“I didn’t want to risk ruining things between us. We’ve always had…” he broke off as if searching for the right words and reached for her hands on her lap. He raised his gaze to hers. “We’ve always had such a close relationship,” he said finally. “You understand me, Alice. In a way no one else does. Have I ruined everything by kissing you?”
Mesmerized, she shook her head.
“May I kiss you again?”
She nodded. The power of speech had deserted her.
He lifted her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her. He kissed her for the longest time, her head spinning, her heart bursting. She had got her wish, at long last.
“I have to go now,” he whispered in her ear. “Come and see me in London. But don’t tell anyone. Especially not your father. Promise me that.”CHAPTER SIXTEEN
“I’m sorry, I must be boring you to death with my rambling on.”
Clayton shook his head. “Not at all.”
“There’s no need to be polite.”
“I’ve been accused of many things, but politeness is not one of them.”
“Even so, I ought to be going.”
They both looked at their watches. It was gone ten.
“I had no idea it was so late,” she said, rising from her chair.
Clayton was out of his chair, too. He was disappointed she was leaving. He’d not only enjoyed the novelty of having some company for the evening, he was fascinated by her story. “You can’t leave me on such a cliff-hanging moment,” he said. “You have to tell me what happened next. I insist.”
“You really want to know?”
“I shan’t sleep a wink.”
She smiled faintly. “Got any theories how it works out?”
“I have the feeling there’s not going to be a happy ending between you and Rufus. Doubtless, he proves to be less than a perfect gentleman?”
“Not even close.” She hooked her bag over her shoulder. “I’ll be seeing you, then.”
• • •
Clayton woke several times in the night. Something was nagging away at him inside. It was a sensation he hadn’t experienced in a long, long time. He almost didn’t recognize it. But when he did, he sat up and switched on the bedside lamp. He was breathing hard. He felt a little shaky. A little panicky. He pushed back the bedclothes, slipped out of bed and steadying his breath, he stood for a moment, very still, very quiet. He waited to see if something else would happen.
The nagging turned to a flutter of exhilaration that caused a low, resonating buzz in his head. He shook his head, testing to see if it was really there.
But then the smile slipped from his face.
Too soon, the voice of Captain Sensible warned him.You’ve been here before. And on more than one occasion.
He got back into bed. He lay down. He closed his eyes. The buzzing receded.
There, Captain Sensible said smugly.I told you it wasn’t to be trusted.
An hour later Clayton stirred. “Cherry liqueurs,” he mumbled sleepily. “What about the cherry liqueurs?”
• • •
The next morning, Alice was having trouble concentrating.
“Anything wrong?” Josie asked her.
At Alice’s request, they had stopped for a short break. She had made mistake after mistake, misreading lines, stumbling over words, mispronouncing names or getting the intonation wrong. Her stomach was rumbling as well, despite the two bananas she had eaten earlier, and with every slightest sound picked up by the microphone, poor Chris had had his work cut out. She was glad James wasn’t here to witness her making such a hash of the closing stages of Mattie’s latest adventure.
“I’m sorry,” Alice said to Josie as they stood in the small kitchen with their drinks, “I didn’t sleep very well last night. I’ve got a fuggy head.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything, but you do look a bit rough.”
“You know what I mean. You’re not—” Josie leaned away from Alice “—coming down with something, are you?”
“I’m fine. Really.” In her line of work, a cold, a sore throat, or a bunged up nose caused no end of problems. She took out a jar of her favourite honey from her bag and helped herself to a spoon from the cutlery drawer. She placed a spoonful of the honey on her tongue and let it slowly slide down her throat. It was just one of the many things she had to do to keep her voice in tip top condition. She had a whole armoury of herbal remedies at home that she relied upon to take care of her one and only asset.
Forever the task master—time was money after all—Josie checked her watch. “OK to carry on, now?”
Alice nodded and went back to her side of the studio. Watching Josie and Chris resume their positions the other side of the glass, she put her headphones back on and tried to focus her thoughts. But she couldn’t. She was here in body, but her mind was elsewhere; it was with Rufus and Tasha, her father and Julia. And Isabel. After all, it was all down to Isabel what happened in the end.
Alice hadn’t been lying when she had told Josie that she hadn’t slept well last night. But what else could she expect after spending the entire evening reliving the past? And reliving it with such poignant clarity by being back at Cuckoo House. For hour after hour she had lain awake in bed haunted by painful memories of those she had once loved. What little sleep she had finally snatched had been disrupted with myriad dreams. Most of them had revolved around Rufus. She had loved him so very much, to the point of misery. She could still vividly remember how when he’d kissed her, her ribs had felt too tight and she had thought she would pass out for lack of oxygen. She had believed that Rufus was the only man she would ever love and to her shame, so far that had been true. All of her relationships had come undone for the same reason—she simply couldn’t commit herself enough. Rufus had ensured she had never been able to trust anyone again.
She hadn’t intended to tell Clayton her story in such detail last night, but once she had started she had been like a moth drawn to the light and had become totally caught up in reliving those past events. More surprising was that the man on the receiving end of her tale, a relative stranger, had been such an attentive listener, to the extent of wanting to know what happened next.
In exchange for him cooking her supper this evening—heaven only knew what he would give her!—she had promised to conclude her story. She could have offered him the no-frills-cut-a-long-story-short version last night before she had left him, but she had chosen not to. She had wanted to squeeze another evening out of him in the hope that she could try and get to know him better. Well, it wasn’t every day you stumbled across a man like Clayton Miller. She had lovedJoking Asidefrom the very first episode and had been a dedicated fan right through to the final series, so naturally she was keen to know more about one of the show’s creators. He struck her as being a one off.
Then, of course, there was all that stuff written about him in the newspapers. Could any of it be believed? The question they were all obsessed with was whether Clayton Miller was mad or just plain old malicious, desperate to get back at his ex-partner and ex-girlfriend? He struck Alice as being neither mad nor malicious. Above average cranky was how she would describe him.
Mad was how she would describe her behaviour last night. After she had left Cuckoo House, she had tried ringing James. She had promised herself faithfully that she wouldn’t do anything silly—like ring James—but ring him she did. She simplyhadto know what it was he had wanted to say to her. When she’d got no reply—his mobile must have been switched off—she had been relieved. Especially so when she realized just how late it was. Any sane person would have accepted that if James had had anything of importance to say, such as—”Alice, I can’t live without you!” he could have called her by now. It was probably safe to assume that all he had had in mind to ask her was something so inconsequential that he’d forgotten all about it since yesterday.
Work, she reminded herself when Josie’s voice came through her headphones asking if she was ready to continue. “Ready,” she replied.
• • •
Clayton was pulling out all the stops. He was cooking. Not just frying or grilling, but the real thing. Actual hot-diggity, death-defying, back-against-the-wall cooking! And all, drum roll if you please, without a safety net.Ta-daar!
He had the Armstrongs’ CD player on—music was piped through the ground floor of the house, just as he had at home in London—and having raided their CD collection, Leonard Cohen was singing “First We Take Manhattan.” Accompanying the great man, Clayton shimmied his way across the kitchen, juggling a couple of eggs, tossing them deftly higher and higher, then lower, then one behind his back. Oh yeah, look at him go! He had taught himself to juggle during the early stages of his writer’s block. He had read somewhere that it could unblock and free up the mind. Just went to show that you couldn’t believe a damn word you read.
He placed the eggs carefully on the worktop beside the bag of flour he’d found in one of the cupboards and rolled up his sleeves. “Right,” he said, flattening the pages of the cookery book he’d helped himself to from the shelf above the wine rack. “Toad in the hole. First catch your toad. Ha, ha! Nothing like an old gag. What’s that you say, Leonard? There ain’t no cure for love? Sure there is. It’s right there, where it always is, at the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s! You just gotta keep on digging for it, Lennie my old mate.”
A loud rapping at the window made him jump. “What the hell!” he exclaimed.
It was dark now so all he could see as he tried to peer through the window was his startled reflection looking back at him. That and the rain lashing against the glass. He bent forward to see better. But then he leapt away from the window. What if Alice had lied to him? What if she had called one of the newspapers and told them where he was? So much for giving him her word!
Another sharp, insistent rap at the window had him jumping again.
“Shannon!” yelled a voice. “What are you playing at in there? Hurry up and let me in. I’m getting soaked to the skin out here.”
He recognized the haughty voice as belonging to the gun-toting old crone from yesterday. He went to let her in. As rude and as batty as she was, she was a better prospect than some scuzzy journalist dropping by in the hope of getting an exclusive.
“You looked scared to death through the window,” she said, stripping off her dripping wet coat and shoving it at him. “You’d best put that near the boiler to dry.”
“You’re stopping, then?”
“Looks that way to me. I’ve bought you a present.” She brandished a bottle which worryingly bore all the hallmarks of something homemade.
“What is it?” he asked.
She smiled. “Wait and see. Go on, hang up my coat. The last time I was here, the boiler room was second door on the left.”
He did as she said then found that she’d disappeared. He went through to the kitchen and found her poking about inside a cupboard.
“Bingo! I’ve found the glasses,” she said. “Come on, sit yourself down and have a sip of this. It’ll put the colour back into your cheeks.”
“You seem very at home here.”
“If you’re referring to me using the back door as opposed to the front, that’s what I’ve always done. As for helping myself to a glass, I was merely being helpful.” She cocked an eye at the open cookery book. “What are you cooking?”
“Roast neighbour. I haven’t measured her yet, but I reckon she’ll just about fit in the oven.”
She laughed throatily and passed him a shot glass. “Here’s mud in your eye!” She chinked her glass against his.
“It’s not the mud I’m concerned about,” he said, regarding the urine-coloured liquid warily. He took a cautious sip. It seemed innocuous enough. Nothing too…Whoa.He opened his mouth, half expecting flames to leap out and scorch the table in front of him. He caught his breath. “What the hell is that?” he gasped.
“Just a little something I like to throw together. Top up?”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” He slammed a hand over his glass. “Get on with you.” She downed her glass in one then poured herself another shot.
OK, she was a total show off! “I hope you’re not planning to get drunk and take advantage of me,” he said.
She roared with laughter. “What a splendid idea! Bottoms up!”
He watched in amazement as she downed yet more of her devil’s brew. “Why didn’t you wait for me yesterday?” he asked.
“I told you to be there on time.”
“I was two minutes late.”
She shrugged. “You may have time to squander but I don’t. At my age, every minute counts. So what’s cooking chez Cuckoo House? If I like the sound of it I might stay.” She frowned and cupped a hand behind her ear. “Who’s the crooner? He doesn’t sound very happy. Wouldn’t have thought a man in your state should be listening to something as grim as this.”
“Oh, really? What do you recommend? ‘The Birdie Song’? And what do you mean, a man in mystate?”
“Your breakdown. The reason you’re here. Taking it easy. Although in my opinion, some good old-fashioned hard work would sort you out a lot quicker. Tidying yourself up would help, too. Who wouldn’t be depressed seeing that reflection in the mirror every day? You look like a train wreck.”
“Speak your mind, why don’t you?”
“I will when we’ve got to know one another better.”
“I look forward to it.”
“So what caused your breakdown?”
Good God, she was obsessed with the idea! “How can I say this in terms that you’ll actually understand?” he said. “I. Have. Not. Had. A. Breakdown.”
“Really? You do surprise me. Oh, well, never mind. What time’s supper?”
He shook his head. “Sorry, but I have someone coming.”
“Oh?” She made a great play of tipping her head back and sniffing. She looked ridiculous, like a Pekinese dog twitching its nose. “Is there love in the air?” she asked. “And would it have anything to do with Alice Barrett?”
“Shoemaker,” he corrected her. He immediately regretted opening his mouth. Now he’d as good as admitted he and Alice had something going. “Not that she and I—” he started to say in an attempt to refute any conclusion she might have leapt to.
The old woman held up a gnarled hand. “Please, spare me the details,” she interrupted him. “Another person’s love life is their own affair.”
“I’m glad you consider some subjects to be off limits, but Alice has nothing to do with my love life. Such as it is.”
“What? A dearth of nooky? None at all? A fine specimen like you. Heavens! What has the world come to? There again, you’ve obviously let things slide. That would be a contributing factor to your current dry patch.”
“And what’s your excuse?”
She chortled. “Who says I’m not getting my share? A catch like me, I have them queuing at the door.”
“Surprise me: has there ever been a Mr. George in your life?”
“Don’t be a complete idiot, Shannon. As if I’d make that kind of a mistake. So how’s Alice these days? What is she up to? I remember she wanted to become an actress.”
“From what she’s told me, the actress thing didn’t come off for her. She does voice-overs. Not that I know that much about her.” Which was an odd thing to say, given how much he’d learned about Alice as a teenager last night. “When was the last time you saw her?” he asked, curious now to see what information he could extract from his unforeseen guest.
George topped up her glass. “She must have been about eighteen when I last saw her. Maybe older. I’ve lost track. I was sad to see her go. But I quite understood why she had to do what she did. If she’s stayed, folk round here would have gone on talking for ever. She would have been the focus of an endless stream of tittletattle. Worse, they would have poured sympathy on her. Who in their right mind wants that? Certainly not a young girl with her whole life before her.” She paused, then once more tossed back the contents of her glass. “Well, Shannon,” she said, pushing the empty shot glass away from her, “this fancy dinner of yours won’t cook itself. It’s time to stop your idle gossiping and drinking and get stuck in.” With a creak of bones, she rose from her chair.
His curiosity lured out into the open only to be left exposed and unsatisfied, Clayton felt perversely cheated she was leaving as unexpectedly as she had arrived. He wanted to know more. What had gone on here all those years ago? Could he rely upon Alice to tell him the whole story? Or would she skip over the really interesting bits?
“I’ll see myself out,” George said when Clayton had made no attempt to move from his seat.
“No chance,” he said, jumping up. “I want to make sure you’ve really gone. I don’t want any nasty surprises, like stumbling over you in the middle of the night and giving myself a heart attack.”
“And they say chivalry is dead. By the way, you haven’t said where Alice is now living. Do you have her address?”
“Sorry, I don’t. All I know is that she’s somewhere local.”
“Only a mobile number.”
“Excellent. Give it to me the next time we meet.”
He walked her to the boiler room, helped her into her coat, which swallowed her up whole, then opened the back door. He pulled a face. “It’s a foul night,” he said.
“I’ve seen worse.” She buttoned her coat up to her chin. “Give Alice my best wishes. Tell her to call in on me. Tell her that I’m furious she hasn’t done so before now. And—” She broke off and put a hand on his arm.
“And what?” he asked, nervous at what might be coming next.
“I’ve decided you need keeping an eye on, young fella m’lad. I’ll call in again soon. Take care.”CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
Clayton had never cooked Toad in the Hole before and now that the situation seemed thoroughly out of his control, he was wondering why he had ever thought of cooking it in the first place. How difficult could it be? The batter was just eggs, flour, milk and water. Basic ingredients. Nothing tricky. And surely, doubling the quantities involved so he could make a really big Toad in the Hole couldn’t have affected anything, could it?
He had followed the recipe to the letter, even sieving the flour, but the trouble had started the moment an electric whisk was called for. He had never used one before. Could that have been his mistake? Had the jug-like container not been the right bit of kit to use? Whatever it was, it was an instrument of the devil and had just sent the mixture flying at supersonic speed, splattering everything within range, including him. Now, as he tried to mop his face clean, two things occurred to him: should he have put a lid on the instrument of the devil before switching it on, and what had possessed him to say he’d cook for Alice? Unless a grill or a frying pan was involved, he was a rubbish cook. What had he been thinking? Had he been trying to prove himself? If so, was this yet another level of pitiable behaviour he had been reduced to? Middle-aged man trying to impress young girl? Was that what this was about? He groaned and pushed a hand through his hair.
He checked the time. Forty-five minutes and Alice would be here. OK, plenty of time yet to put this mess right. He would dispense with any complicated machinery. Clearly he and electrical kitchen appliances of a whirring nature weren’t compatible. He’d weigh yet more ingredients out and do things the old-fashioned way. He couldn’t recall his mother ever using a mixer to make Toad in the Hole. When he thought about it, she had used a hand-held whisk. A balloon whisk, that’s what it was called. He rummaged around in the drawers and came up with just the thing.
“Right. Six ounces of flour.” No, that wasn’t right. He had to double the amount. “OK. Twelve ounces of flour.” He tipped the bag and poured. It seemed a hell of a lot. Well, all the better. More for him to eat.
He found a larger mixing bowl, transferred the flour to it, added the eggs, then some milk. He began whisking. Except the mixture wasn’t working with him. Like just about everything in his life these days, it was working against him. It was too stiff. He added more milk. Whisked again. Oh, what the hell. He added all the milk. And the water.
“Right,” he said with determined resolve. “Here we go.” A puff of flour flew up into his face. He wiped at his cheek with the back of his hand. It was then that he realized something important: he had quadrupled the ingredients, hadn’t he? He’d doubled up on the doubling up. Oh, shit! This was going to be the mother of all Toad in the Holes!
He lost track of how long he’d been trying to whisk some sense into the bowl of lumpy gloop when he heard the doorbell.
Here already? She couldn’t be. Why did she have to be so early? He looked at his watch. She was bang on time. Why couldn’t she be more like Stacey? Stacey had taken so long to get ready to go out she had turned being late into an art form. It used to drive him mad. Really mad. So mad on one occasion he had pulled off the clothes he’d just put on, changed into his pyjamas, cancelled the taxi and restaurant he’d booked, ordered a takeaway pizza, poured himself a drink, and switched on the television. When she had finally appeared downstairs—looking a million dollars, it had to be said—she’d found him a third of the way through his favourite sausage and chilli pizza. “Congratulations,” he’d said, “I think that might be a record for you, darling. A spectacular two hours and thirty-seven minutes.”
The use of the word “darling” was enough to alert her to the fact that he was being far from sincere. Although, if he was honest, he couldn’t remember the last time he had been sincere with her.
• • •
It wasn’t often that he was greeted with such a wide smile. “What happened to you?” his guest asked when he opened the door.
He caught sight of himself in the large gilt-framed mirror on the wall to his right. Oh, smooth, he thought. His hair, face and beard were covered in a powdery, patchy white coating. He looked like he’d had his head in a trough of cocaine. Or he’d been Artexed. “I was trying out a new face pack,” he said.
“Hmm…I think you may have overdone it.”
“That’s me. One day I’ll learn that less is more. Come through to the kitchen. But I have to warn you, there’s been a hitch with supper. Basically, I’m wearing it.”
She laughed and carried on laughing when she saw the state of the kitchen. “What happened?” she asked, her eyes sweeping round the scene of devastation, finally homing in on the instrument of the devil on the draining board. “Oh, don’t tell me,” she said. “You forgot to put the lid on?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, “of course I put the lid on. Only a blithering fool would forget to do that.”
Her eyes then took in the table. “Holy moley! Is that what I think it is? A bottle of George’s grog? Tell me you didn’t drink any.”
“I stopped after four,” he said, deadpan.
She raised an eyebrow. “And you’re still on your feet? You still know what day of the week it is?”
He shrugged and spread out his hands. “Oh, all right, I admit it, I’m nothing but a big wuz; I managed one solitary, pathetic sip. But believe me, the stuff inside that bottle is firewater in its most evil form.”
“If it’s as bad as I remember, you did the right thing in avoiding it. She used to give us a bottle every year for Christmas. My father developed a taste for it in the end, but I never did. It’s probably what’s preserved her all these years.”
“Pickled on the inside and creosoted on the outside,” he agreed. “Before I forget, I’m charged with passing on her best wishes to you and to instruct you to call in and see her. She was adamant on that point.”
“Did she…did she say anything about my family whilst she was here?”
Clayton noted the change in Alice’s voice. Gone was the sure, light-hearted tone of before and in its place there was hesitancy. “Nothing specifically about your family,” he said, “only that had you not left Cuckoo House when you did you would have been on the receiving end of a certain amount of tittle-tattle.”
“How very discreet of her,” Alice murmured. Then looking about her again, she said, “Would you like me to straighten things out here while you see to…” she turned and looked directly at him, “your face pack?”
“Please don’t make me feel any more hopeless than I already do.”
She smiled. “Just trying to help, that’s all. What exactly is it that you’re covered in?”
“Batter mix. I was trying to make Toad in the Hole. But the toad was a wriggly swine and wouldn’t hold still.”
“In that case, I’d really recommend you wash it off quickly before it sets like concrete.”
“But I can’t leave you down here tidying this lot up on your own. Even I can see that that would be pushing the boundaries of extreme bad manners.”
“I honestly don’t mind.”
“I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t mean it.”
• • •
Left alone, Alice took a moment to take stock. Where to start? Hot water. And lots of it. She ran the hot tap, filled the sink and squirted in a long squeeze of Fairy Liquid.
The damage was fairly localized but still there was the stretch of worktop to scrub, the cabinet doors, the window, the tiles on the wall and an area of the floor. What was it with men and machinery? They made out that only a man could operate anything that came with a manual and an electrical supply, and yet they couldn’t manage the simplest of things in the kitchen. Her father had once done exactly the same thing. The damage had been worse in his case since he’d been attempting to make carrot soup. The stains had been indelible; nothing had ever shifted them. Or her father’s unshakeable conviction that of course he’d screwed the lid on firmly—what did people take him for, a raving imbecile?
As she recalled yet another poignantly vivid memory in the actual place where it had happened, Alice felt that if she looked hard enough she would come across those very same carrot soup stains…or if she listened hard enough she would hear the bellowing roar of her father’s voice as he slid down the banisters. It didn’t make her feel happy, though.
When she had everything in order, she looked at the abandoned bowl of greying, lumpy batter mix, put it to one side and started making a fresh batch. Next she found the sausages in the fridge, put them in a roasting tin with a heavy base and into the oven on a high heat. Some mashed potato would be nice, she thought. But after a thorough search, she couldn’t find any potatoes. She did find a bag of peas in the freezer, however. And some stock cubes in one of the cupboards. Toad in the Hole with peas and gravy: perfect.
She was opening a stock cube when her mobile rang. It was her agent and at once she knew that Hazel had bad news to deliver. Hazel only ever asked Alice how she was when she was prevaricating. When there was good news to report, she was straight to it, no shilly-shallying.
“What is it, Hazel?”
“I’m sorry, Alice, and I can’t tell you how angry this makes me, but you and I both know how this business works. The thing is, James Montgomery has just signed a new contract to write another five books and because his popularity is growing, his publishers want—”
“Let me guess. They want someone else to read his books. Someone else with a bigger profile. A name. Abigname.”
“As I said, you and I know all too well how this industry works. If I could change it, Alice, I would. You know that.”
So that’s what James had wanted to discuss with her. That’s what he didn’t have the nerve to go through with. What a fool she had been! A bloody stupid fool. Would she never learn? Would she never learn to read the signs?
“Alice? Are you still there?”
“Yes,” she said tiredly. “I’m still here.”
“You’re upset; that’s quite understandable.I’mupset. We’re in this together, Alice. Don’t ever forget that. Although I sometimes wonder why I do this job. It doesn’t get any easier.”
Alice smiled to herself. You do it for your cut, she wanted to say. “I shall miss Mattie,” she said.
“Mattie? Who’s Mattie?”
Hazel was a good agent when it came to finding Alice work, whether it was audio books or voice-over, but her interest in the actual product was minimal. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“I’ll be chasing the next big thing for you, Alice. Trust me on that. Speak to you soon.”
Alice ended the call as cheerfully as she could manage.The next big thing. When it came down to it, that’s what it was all about. From one day to the next, it was living in hope of the next big job. The next big relationship. The next big moment of happiness. The next new beginning.
James must have known for some time about his new contract and that she wouldn’t be reading any more of his books. He had waited for her to finish work on her last Mattie adventure, then he had skedaddled. Yet as much as Alice wanted to blame him for the way she was feeling, she knew she was deluding herself. James owed her nothing. In fairness, he had very nearly plucked up the courage to talk to her, hadn’t he? The mistake she had made was to read too much into his input at the studio, his occasional emails and his charming manner. She had allowed herself to create a make-believe world in which she and James were the two main characters. Again, in fairness to him, he had never once given her cause to think that they had anything more than a professional relationship. It was her overactive imagination that had got the better of her. Everything was fantasy for her. It always had been.
“Mm…something smells good.”
She turned at the sound of Clayton’s voice.
Except it wasn’t Clayton. It was a very different man. He was a clean-shaven stranger. His hair, still wet from the shower, was neatly combed into place and his shirt and jeans were less rumpled than she was used to seeing. He looked altogether less rumpled. Younger too, just as she had thought he would without the beard.
“You’ve wrought a miracle here,” he said, observing the tidy-up operation she had carried out.
“I have magical powers,” she said, adding “and so have you by the looks of things.”
He smiled ruefully and rubbed his smooth chin. “You were right about that stuff setting like concrete. I gave up trying to wash it out of my beard; it was easier to hack the lot off. I haven’t done a brilliant job, though. It feels strange being me again.”
It was going to take some getting used to, Alice thought as she looked at him with new eyes. She had to fight the urge to gawp at him from all angles. The transformation was really quite something. “Aren’t you worried about someone recognizing you?” she asked.
“Round here? I don’t think so. Would you have recognized me if you’d passed me in the street?”
“There you go. Paranoia had me kidding myself that I had made that big an impression on the world. Better to believe in one’s smallness than one’s greatness, don’t you think?”
Aware that she still had her mobile in her hand, she said, “Funny you should say that. I’ve just received a call from my agent that’s made me realize just how insignificant I am.”
“Sounds like you need to change your agent.” She put the mobile away in her bag. “It wasn’t Hazel’s fault; she was merely the messenger of bad news.”
“Me too. I’ve been replaced by a bigger name. It often happens in my line of work. If the product I’ve been helping to get off the ground hits the big time, the money men step in and demand a well-known actor to be used. It happened to me a few years ago. I was the original voice ofThis Little Piggybut when it took off, I was history.”
“And what’s the product in this particular instance?”
“A series of children’s books by James Montgomery.” She could see him thinking. The cogs literally grinding. “I’ll save you the trouble of asking your next question,” she said. “He was the one who phoned me here that day. The one you said made me go pink at the edges.”
“That wasn’t very gallant of me. I’m sorry. Does it muddy the waters, then, as far as your relationship goes, that this guy’s ditched you, professionally speaking, in favour of a big name?”
Without answering him, she went over to the oven. She slipped on a pair of oven gloves and opened the door. She pulled out the roasting tin of cooked sausages. “Pass me the bowl of batter mix, please,” she said. “No, not your attempt. Mine.” When he’d passed her the correct bowl, she gave the mixture a stir then poured it over the sausages and returned them to the oven. “Thirty-five minutes and we’ll be ready,” she said. She removed the oven gloves and found that she was being stared at. She suddenly felt irritated. What right did he have to ask her such an intrusive question? “Are you going to keep staring at me until I’ve answered you, is that it?”
He took a moment to reply. “Actually, I was just thinking how annoyed I was with myself for upsetting you. Especially when you’ve gone to so much trouble to salvage the evening. I’m sorry.”
“You’ve done a lot of apologizing this evening.”
“What can I say? It’s new to me. I’m trying to get the hang of it.” She smiled. “I’d say you’ve almost got it licked. And the answer to your question is that I had nothing but a work relationship with James. Typically for me, I misread the situation and thought there was more to it.”
“Ah, I see. Well, I’m doubly sorry in that case. Does that mean we get to spend part of the evening bitching about chummy-boy to make you feel better? We could go online and write some creatively cruel reviews about his books if you like.”
She laughed. “That won’t be necessary. I feel better already. By the way, he told me the other day that he had gone to the same school as you. He was several years below you.”
“What can I say? The school obviously turns out a nice line in bastards. How did my name crop up in the conversation?”
“It was him who pointed you out to me in the newspaper. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t let on that you were staying here.”
“Thank you for that. Right then, what can I do to help? Because so far, I’ve done nothing but my best to sabotage the evening.”
“I noticed a bottle of white wine in the fridge. How about you open that? If that’s not too presumptuous of me—I am only a guest, after all. Pass me that small pan, please.”
“A bossy guest,” he said with a small smile.
She took the pan from him. “You know, you’re a much nicer man to be around without the beard. The beard was definitely a bad influence on you. Now all you need is a decent haircut.”
“That’s the thing about women. They meet a man and all they want to do is change him.”
“But always for the better.”
“That’s what they always say.”
• • •
Clayton sat back in his chair. He raised his glass to his dining companion. “Alice, I can honestly say that was the best Toad in the Hole I’ve ever eaten. Thank you. Can I hire you to come and cook for me every day?”
She wagged a finger at him. “You had your opportunity when I was Katya, but you turned me down flat.”
“Oh, how I miss Katya!”
“Liar. You hated her.”
“No I didn’t. I was terrified of her!”
Clayton tipped his head back and closed his eyes. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed making someone laugh. He’d also forgotten how infectious laughter could be. He hadn’t felt this relaxed in someone else’s company in a very long while. He couldn’t remember the last time when he’d found anything remotely amusing or experienced an emotion other than bitter regret. He and Bazza used to receive sack loads of letters from fans ofJoking Aside, many of them from people who claimed the humour in the show had got them through a bad period in their lives. A shame that same humour hadn’t been able to do the same for him.
“Can I ask you something?”
Clayton opened his eyes. “Depends what it is.”
“Don’t look so alarmed. I was just wondering what it must be like to be such a hugely popular writer.”
“The first thing you have to understand is that writing is a compulsion. Maybe like acting is for you. The second thing is that as strong as that compulsion is, there’s no security in it. You’re living off your wits and if those wits pack up and leave home, you’re a goner. The compulsion then is to disappear into a great big black hole of nothing.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
“Yes,” he said simply.
“Will you write again, do you think? Do you even want to?”
He thought of last night, how his brain had felt as if it had momentarily rewired itself. “Tell me about the cherry liqueurs,” he said.CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
“Oh, yes, the cherry liqueurs. Well, how about we move to the sitting room so I can tell you the rest of the story in comfort?”
“I’ve discovered a wood pile in one of the outhouses; why don’t we make a fire, but in the room with the turret? I like that room.” Clayton’s face was suddenly animated, his voice eager.
Alice smiled. “A bedtime story round the camp fire? Is that what you want?”
“It’s what everyone wants, isn’t it?”
• • •
Ten minutes later and Clayton was clearly in his element. Give a man the opportunity to play with a fire and he was transformed. Alice’s mother used to say that you could take the caveman out of the cave, but you couldn’t take cave out of the man. Alice’s father had never been able to resist the lure of a log fire.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Alice watched Clayton, fascinated and amused. All his concentration was focused on building the perfectly constructed fire. How different he was from the dishevelled, short-tempered, grumpy man she had met just a short time ago. He had mellowed beyond belief. She couldn’t put her finger on it exactly, but there was certainly something about his character that she was warming to. Now that the beard was gone and she could see his face properly, she could discern his features more clearly. To her surprise, she liked what she saw.
He probably wouldn’t ever be described as classically good looking, but his eyes were a soft hazel colour, and his mouth had an appealing lopsided curve to it. Unlike her, he hadn’t been forced to wear a brace when he had been a child and two of his front teeth were slightly crooked. It seemed to reinforce her view of him, that somewhere along the line he had got bent out of shape. He had a tall, rangy build with broad shoulders; she doubted he was the kind of man who favoured working out at the gym. Maybe he burned the calories off with nervous energy.
Still observing him in profile, she watched him strike a match and hold it carefully against a screwed up ball of newspaper and kindling. She wondered if he’d picked out the pages of the paper in which he had featured. As the flames flickered and grew and his expression became even more absorbed, his face was illuminated with a golden light and his eyes turned to amber. He seemed so contentedly untroubled now and she found herself hoping that the crisis he was currently going through would soon be over, that he would be able to find a way to be happy again.
During supper, and although she was itching to know more, she had deliberately not pressed him on the exact details of his winding up here at Cuckoo House. He in turn hadn’t asked her anything about her childhood, not until they’d finished eating and he’d raised the matter of the cherry liqueurs. Prior to that, he’d told her some anecdotes about working with the American studio that had made the U.S. version ofJoking Aside, how, before they’d flown over to meet everyone, Clayton, who had gone down with a bug the night before, had been sick during a conference call. The Americans had been too polite to say anything and had carried on with the conversation while Clayton had retched into a wastepaper bin. Only when Barry had started to sing “Everything’s Coming up Roses” did anyone break stride and enquire whether everything was all right.
He hadn’t only spoken about himself, he had also asked her about her work and she had enjoyed showing off her catalogue of voices—Marge and Lisa Simpson, Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole, Davina McCall, Katie Price, Anne Robinson, and some of the absolute stock in trade Hollywood greats such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. He had particularly liked her imitation of Sharon Osbourne as a foul-mouthed flight attendant. “I swear she served me on the last internal flight I took in the States,” he’d said. He was a good audience and that was something she had never been able to resist.
“There,” he said, swinging round to her and wiping his hands on his trousers. “Now we’re all set for story time.”
“Not quite,” she said. She passed him his glass of wine from the tray she’d brought in with her. “Nowwe’re ready.”CHAPTER NINETEEN
Alice had kept her promise to Rufus not to tell anyone about them. She hadn’t even told Tasha. But in truth, there wasn’t an awful lot to tell. Very little had actually changed since that day he had kissed her and walked out of Cuckoo House, vowing never to return, not unless her father apologized to him. Alice knew her father would never do that. Just as she knew Rufus would never admit that he had overreacted.
Once he was back in London he wrote to her, but the letters were always a disappointment. Whereas she couldn’t stop herself from opening her heart to him, he never spoke of his feelings for her. “I’m no good with putting my emotions down on paper,” he’d written in one letter, “but you know in your heart how I feel about you.” She hung onto that and veered from euphoric delight whenever she recalled their first kiss to desperate misery that she couldn’t see him. Every time she mentioned in a letter that maybe they could meet in London, as he’d suggested, he would write back saying he didn’t think that was a good idea, not with him sharing a house with two other medical students. “If you come and stay with me, I know we’ll end up in bed together and I don’t want our first time to be like that, not with Neil and Andy listening to our every move. I want it to be special for us, a moment we’ll both remember for the rest of our lives.”
At Cuckoo House things were becoming increasingly difficult between Alice’s father and Julia. Upset that Rufus was refusing to come home, Julia begged Bruce to make good the damage he had done. “The damageI’vedone,” Alice and Tasha heard him shout incredulously at Julia. “You have to be joking! Your son is nothing but a spoilt brat. It’s time he woke up to the fact that money doesn’t grow on trees. It has to be earned.”
The arguments escalated until they were no longer conducted behind closed doors. Alice was reminded of the days when her mother had been alive and she and he had rowed at the top of their voices, both deriving some kind of perverse pleasure from the exchange. But Julia was nothing like Alice’s mother. She was no match for Bruce’s vociferous outbursts; she would break down in tears and accuse him of bullying her. Alice knew that tears were anathema to her father. He simply couldn’t tolerate them. He saw them as an easy way out for a woman. He would walk away from Julia in disgust whenever she cried. Something that was happening more and more.
The worst of it was that this newfound hostility put a strain on Alice and Tasha’s friendship. Predictably Tasha took her mother’s side and described her stepfather as a heartless tyrant. When Tasha did that, Alice would rush to defend her father. One day she blurted out that Tasha should be grateful for having such a generous stepfather, that if it hadn’t been for him, they wouldn’t have anything. “What do you mean by that?” Tasha had demanded.
“Nothing,” Alice had said, snapping her mouth shut. She had promised herself she would never let on to Tasha that she and her family were as poor as the proverbial church mouse, that all those stories Tasha proudly told of her father—what a clever and successful man he’d been—were untrue. As the days and weeks passed, and Bruce made himself yet more unpopular in Tasha’s eyes, she began to mention her dead father more frequently and would proudly show Alice the many photographs she had of him, pointing out how alike she was to him. Knowing how she felt about her own father, Alice couldn’t bring herself to tell Tasha the truth about the man she clearly idolized. Instead she had to put up with Tasha complaining how unfairly her brother had been treated and how he’d bravely taken a stand against her horrible stepfather.
Alice had never kidded herself that things had been perfect at Cuckoo House, but for the first time in her life she didn’t look forward to going home for the school holidays. Everyone who mattered most to her—her father, Tasha and Rufus, especially Rufus—was drifting away from her and there seemed nothing she could do about it.
One day, during the summer holidays, she pleaded with her father to write to Rufus and say he was sorry and that he’d reconsidered. “Nothing doing, Alice,” her father had said, “and do you really want to know why I’m not going to reconsider?”
“You want to teach Rufus a lesson?” she said.
“There is that, but more crucially, the truth of the matter is that, since you mother died, money has not been as plentiful as it once was. I’m not getting as many photographs published these days and those overseas trips don’t come cheap. The bottom line is, I don’t have enough to go splashing around on smart cars for a spoilt brat.”
“Rufus isn’t a spoilt brat,” Alice said, quick as always to defend the man she loved. “And I’m sure an ordinary car is all he wants.”
Her father scoffed. “Yeah, and I’m the Queen of Sheba! Look, Alice, I think it’s time I told you something important. I was going to wait until your birthday, but now is as good a time as any. Most of the money we have came from your mother’s side of the family. It was your great aunt Eliza who had all the dosh. She left it in a trust to your mother when she died and when your mother died, a new trust was invoked which meant I would be paid a regular allowance to take care of you, but the bulk of the trust will pass to you when you turn eighteen. You see, your great aunt Eliza never trusted me when it came to money; she thought it would slip through my fingers like water. She also wanted to safeguard it, in the eventuality of me surviving your mother and remarrying. She was determined that you would inherit the bulk of everything she had, which is why this house isn’t in my name. When your mother died, it became yours. Well, strictly speaking it does when you turn eighteen. For now, it’s wrapped up in a complicated trust, of which I have little understanding.”
Alice was astonished. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
He waved a tired hand around his head as if ridding himself of a tiresome fly. “It all seemed such a bore to me. Plus I didn’t want you growing up with the burden of it. Because these things can become a burden. And I’d strongly advise you not to tell anyone about this conversation. Especially not any young men you might become entangled with.”
Wondering if her father was thinking of a young man in particular, she said, “Would I be right in saying that Julia has no money?”
He nodded. “Of course, I’ve known all along that that was why she agreed to marry me. She thought I was the answer to all her problems.” He smiled. “She had a nasty shock when she realized her mistake.”
“Why did you marry her, Dad?”
“Good question, Alice. Maybe I was lonely. Maybe I thought she’d make a good mother to you. Has Julia been a good mother to you?”
“I don’t really know. She’s not like Mum was.”
He smiled ruefully at this. “Your mother was your mother. She was unique.”
“Do you miss her?”
“God, yes. It’s not till you lose someone that you realize how important they were to you. Life was hell at times with Barbara, but it was never boring. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t miss her wit and her scathing put-downs. Julia has none of the qualities your mother had.”
“If Mum meant so much to you, why did you…” Alice faltered but then forced herself to ask the question she had always wanted to ask her father. “Why did you mess about with all those au pairs?”
Without a flicker of hesitation or embarrassment, he said, “Neither your mother nor I were saints, Alice, but no matter what we got up to, we always felt connected to each other. We always came back to each other. Some relationships are made that way. But let’s not dwell on any of that. There’s something else I want to discuss with you. In September, you’ll be eighteen; I want you to have a party. A real do. A marquee on the lawn affair. A disco. The full works. Invite all your friends from school.”
She looked at him doubtfully. “Can we afford it?”
He rolled his eyes. “Now you see, that’s exactly why I never told you any of this nonsense about money before. You’re going to waste time and energy worrying about it.”
“You can’t protect me for ever, Dad.”
“I will if I can,” he replied, his expression suddenly stern.
• • •
On the day of the party, Cuckoo House was crammed to the rafters with guests. Most of them were staying for the weekend. Brooking no argument, her father had laid down the ground rules—the girls got to sleep in a bed (if they were lucky) or had to make do with a sleeping bag on the floor, and the boys, mostly brothers of the girls from school, were relegated to sleep in the marquee in the garden when the party was over. Mrs. Randall, whose services were now only required during the school holidays, had supervised the caterers and waitresses and her nephew was providing the disco. Mr. Randall would be in charge of the bar. It was going to be the perfect party, so Tasha kept telling Alice.
The two of them were alone in Alice’s bedroom getting dressed. For some weeks now there had been a truce in place between them; this was mostly down to Alice—forever the mediator searching for a way to keep the peace—who had suggested that she and Tasha have a combined eighteenth birthday party.
Tasha was wearing a strapless, ankle-length dress that had a ruched bodice. It was white and showed off her flawless olive skin. She looked stunning with her hair cascading down her back like a sheer black waterfall. Alice had chosen not to smooth out her hair as she usually did, and had decided to go with the natural curl and wave of it. She had spent the last hour fiddling with a pair of curling tongs and was pleased with the results. She was pleased with her dress, too. Made of red silk, it was long and strapless like Tasha’s. She had never worn silk before and it felt as sheer as a whisper against her skin. Tasha had done her make-up for her, making her eyes look dark and sultry. She had insisted Alice should wear lipstick the same colour as her dress and despite having worn red lipstick many times before on stage, worn like this, Alice felt quite different. She couldn’t make up her mind whether it made her look sexily alluring or just plain tarty.
“Here, have some of this,” Tasha said. She passed Alice a bottle of vodka.
Alice put it carefully to her mouth, not wanting to ruin her make-up. She took a sip. Then another. And another. She wasn’t planning on getting drunk, but she did want to drink enough to take away the pain and disappointment that Rufus wouldn’t be at the party. She had begged him in numerous letters to put aside his differences with her father and to come home for the weekend. “If you really care about me, you’ll do this one small thing for me,” she had written two weeks ago. She knew she was taking a risk—emotionally blackmailing him—but she was desperate to see him. The risk had backfired; he hadn’t replied to her letter. He hadn’t even sent her a birthday card. She was devastated. She had pushed him too far. She had lost him. In the days that followed she had tried to be angry with him, to convince herself that he wasn’t worth loving, but it hadn’t worked. She loved him and that was all there was to it. Perhaps they had the same kind of relationship as her mother and father had had. No matter how many ups and downs they went through, their love would always pull them back to each other.
• • •
Alice was dancing with Jessica Lawton’s brother. His name was Magnus and he was studying politics up in Edinburgh. He looked good in black tie. Very James Bond with his top button undone and his bow-tie hanging loosely around his neck. A shame his breath smelled of champagne and cigarettes. He wasn’t a bad dancer, if a little forceful, and as he spun her round to the music on the springy dance floor, Alice’s vision blurred with a swirl of silk and taffeta like sheets flapping on the washing line. When he stopped spinning her round, she saw her father and Julia helping themselves to plates of food over at the buffet table. She hoped they were having a good time. Over by the bar, she spotted Tasha snogging Emma Carter’s brother.
“The question I’ve been asking myself all evening,” Magnus yelled in her hear, his hands creeping around her waist and towards her chest, “is why a girl as beautiful as you doesn’t have a boyfriend.” His thumbs had almost made contact with her breasts. She shrugged and reached out for a glass of champagne from one of the waitresses circling the marquee. She took a gulp and nearly sneezed as the bubbles shot straight to her nose. Flirting didn’t come easily to her, but she’d had sufficient to drink and now thought what the hell? Rufus didn’t love her; why shouldn’t she have some fun? It was her eighteenth birthday party; if she couldn’t have fun tonight, when could she? She owed Rufus no loyalty. None whatsoever. She leaned into Magnus and said, “Maybe I was waiting for the right person to come along.” She gave him what he hoped was a meaningful look.
He grinned. “In that case, how about we put that to the test?” He took the glass from her hand, put it to his lips then kissed her. Champagne flooded into Alice’s mouth and because she hadn’t been expecting it, her reflexes kicked in and she gagged, spluttering champagne back at him. “Oh, my God,” she shouted above the music, “I’m so sorry.”
He wiped his face and laughed. “I can see I’ve got a lot to teach you.” He drained her glass in one long gulp, ditched the glass on a nearby chair and took her in his arms again. “Come on,” he said, “let’s go somewhere quiet so I can give you my full attention.”
She allowed him to lead her outside into the dark and round to one side of the marquee. “Now then,” he said, “here’s your first lesson of the night.”
“And what lesson would that be?” said a voice directly behind Alice. She spun round.
He smiled. “Looks like I got here in the nick of time. Whoever you are,” he said to Magnus, the smile gone from his face, “hands off. This one’s mine. Go on, piss off before I get really mad with you.”
Magnus dissolved into the night.
“Rufus,” she said again, her voice full of disbelief as she took in how wonderful he looked dressed in black tie. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s your birthday; did you really think I wouldn’t come?”
“But I asked you…I wrote…and when you didn’t reply. I thought—” her voice trailed away.
He stepped in closer to her. “You thought what?”
“That I’d pushed you too hard, that you didn’t care about me anymore.”
“Alice, how could you think that?” He encircled her waist with his hands, pulled her to him and kissed her fiercely. She kissed him back, long and hard, wanting to make up for all the kisses she had been denied. She pressed her body close to his, wanting to melt right into him.
When they finally pulled apart, he said, “I’d say that was definitely worth coming back for.”
Suddenly light headed, she could feel herself swaying, as if she was about to fall off a cliff. Or was it the sky that was falling in? There was an ocean of blood pounding inside her head. “I think I’m going to faint,” she murmured.
He held her firmly. “I’ve got you, Alice, and I’ll never let you go.” She looked into his face. His dark eyes glittered like the twinkling fairy lights that were strung through the trees around them.
“Rufus? Is that you?”
They both turned to see Tasha standing a few feet away.
“Oh, my God, it is you, Rufus!” But then the expression of delight at seeing her brother slipped and was replaced with an expression of confusion. “Why are you holding Alice like that? What’s going on, Alice?”
Alice didn’t know what to say.
But Rufus did. Still keeping an arm around her, he said, “I couldn’tnotcome to my girlfriend’s eighteenth birthday party.”
Tasha laughed. “Rufus, you say the stupidest things sometimes.”
Rufus tightened his hold on Alice. “I’m being serious, Tasha.” As if to convince his sister, he bent his head and kissed Alice, his tongue exploring her mouth in a way that made her knees go weak and her heart thump wildly.
“Stop it, Rufus!” Tasha shrieked.
Embarrassed, Alice wriggled out of Rufus’s arms. “It’s true,” she said shyly.
“Since when?” Tasha looked horrified.
“Since Easter,” Alice said. “We’ve kept it a secret, though.”
“Why?” Tasha demanded. Alice’s mind went blank. Suddenly she couldn’t remember why it had been so important to keep their relationship a secret.
“Because of Alice’s father,” Rufus said matter of factly. “He’s hardly likely to approve, is he? But I’ve decided he can stick his disapproval.”
“What about you, Tasha?” Alice said, nervously. “Do you approve?”
“Of course she approves,” Rufus said.
Tasha looked uncertainly between Rufus and Alice.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s weird. I mean, it’s practically incest.”
Rufus suddenly laughed. “Hey, if I didn’t know better I’d say my little sister is jealous.
“I’m not! Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Only joking, Tasha,” he said, “but can’t you be happy for us?”
Not answering the question, Tasha said, “since you’re here, you’d better come and say hello to Mum. She’ll be furious if you slip away without seeing her.
“I’m not slipping away anywhere,” Rufus said. “Didn’t you hear me when I said that I’ve decided dear old Bruce can stick his disapproval?”CHAPTER TWENTY
Rufus was all for marching straight off to find Bruce and Julia. But not wanting anything to spoil the moment, least of all an angry exchange between her father and Rufus, Alice tugged at his sleeve and held him back. “Let’s go and see them later,” she whispered in his ear. “For now I want some time on my own with you.”
Smiling, Rufus grabbed her hand. “I know the perfect place.”
The perfect place turned out to be his bedroom. As soon as he had the door shut, and not bothering to switch on the light, he pressed her to the wall and kissed her hard, his teeth crashing against hers. Their mouths locked tight, he somehow managed to fling off his jacket, then his bow tie. When he started to unbutton his shirt, she suddenly realized what he was planning to do. She panicked. How would she know what to do? Oh, God, what if she got pregnant? He was kicking off his shoes now. She broke the seal of their mouths. “Rufus,” she murmured anxiously. “I—”
“Oh, Alice,” he said gruffly, misunderstanding her. “I want you too.” One of his hands slipped round to the back of her dress. He found the zip and pulled on it. She felt the silk fall away from her body. She shivered. She wasn’t sure if it was from the sudden cold, or desire for him. He stared at her in her underwear. She withered under his gaze, grateful for the shadowy darkness. He smiled, picked her up and carried her over to his bed. He stood over her and ripped off his trousers.
I want this, Alice told herself. Wasn’t it what she’d fantasized all this time? Hadn’t she imagined this very moment? He lay on top of her, then as if by magic, her underwear was gone. She felt the hardness of him against her. Another wave of panic assailed her. How on earth would it fit inside her? And how would she not cry out if it hurt? His mouth and hands were exploring her body. His hands seemed to be everywhere. She tried not to think of what he was doing. She imagined herself on a beach, the hot sun blazing down on her, waves gently caressing her body. Her panic began to fade. She moved against him, enjoying the touch of his skin on hers. Maybe it would be all right, after all.
Abruptly he leaned over her and yanked open a drawer on the bedside table. “I’m sorry, Alice,” he said, “but I can’t hold on any longer.” Next she heard him tearing something open. Her nervousness returned in an instant. She closed her eyes and waited. She felt something hard nudging against her. She braced herself. “Relax,” he said.
Relax, she told herself. He pushed gently at first, then as if losing patience he pushed harder still and forced his way in. She pictured a large battering ram and gritted her teeth. She wrapped her arms around him, trying to ignore the burning sensation. He started to move, his hips working slowly against hers. He picked up speed, his breath quickening. She lay there not knowing quite what to do. Nothing much, it seemed. With his eyes closed, Rufus seemed in a world of his own. She couldn’t even tell if he was enjoying himself. One of her legs was beginning to cramp. She badly wanted to change positions but sensed Rufus wouldn’t welcome the interruption. How long would it go on for? She wondered. Oh, God, why was she even thinking that? Why wasn’t she enjoying herself? Why wasn’t she making the kind of noises women in films did? Why wasn’t she crying out with rapturous ecstasy? She and Tasha had often competed with each other to see who could make the most convincing sound of a woman having an orgasm.Oh, yes, yes, YES!They would pant, then fall about laughing hysterically. Why wasn’t that happening to her now? Well, not the hysterical laughter, but the glazed over eyes, the head thrown back, the breathlessness.
Above her, Rufus groaned and suddenly reared up, his back arched. He let out a long, shuddering moan then collapsed against her, his body hot and sweaty. Was that it? Was it over? A part of her was relieved. She stroked his clammy back. “There,” he murmured into her messed up hair. “I’ve claimed you now, Alice. Now you’re mine. Happy birthday.” He lay there heavily in her arms and just as she was about to shift position so she could stop her leg from cramping, the door flew open and the light flashed on.
Now she did cry out.
• • •
Perfectly framed in the doorway was her father and there was nowhere to hide; both lying on top of the duvet, their nakedness was fully exposed. Alice tried to get behind Rufus, but he rolled away from her. He sat up and casually dealt with the condom. “Hey, Bruce,” he said, “a little privacy if you don’t mind. How would you feel if I burst in on you and my mother?”
Her father made a low grumbling sound. He came into the room and bent down to where her discarded dress lay puddled on the floor like a pool of blood. He scooped it up and flung it at Alice. She clutched it to her. “When you’ve got a moment, Alice,” he said, “we’re ready to cut your cake.” He turned and left, slamming the door after him.
Mortified and close to tears, Alice held her head in shame. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
Rufus rested a hand on her leg. “Please don’t cry. You’ll spoil your party face and that would never do.” He moved his hand to her chin and lifted her face to his. “You’re eighteen now. You’re not a child. You’re going to have to learn to stand up to him.”
• • •
Nothing was said the next day until their guests had all left.
At Rufus’s insistence, Alice had spent the night in his room. “You’re a grown woman,” he’d said. “You can sleep with whom you want and where you want.”
She hadn’t said what was in her mind, that actually she wanted to sleep in her own bed. Alone. But she’d gone along with him. She had hardly slept, though. Within minutes of being in bed together, he was opening his bedside drawer. “You’ll enjoy it more this time,” he’d said. She must have been doing something wrong because she didn’t enjoy it any more than the first time. She had been tense, horribly aware that her father, as well as all the guests, might hear what they were doing. Frankly, she couldn’t see how they could miss it. Throughout it all Rufus had made loud grunting noises and had as good as yelled out her name at the top of his voice in a crescendo of—Oh, oh, oh, Alice!—when he’d exploded inside her. The bed had played its part, too. The headboard had thumped against the wall and the bed itself had creaked and squeaked so loudly she wouldn’t have been surprised if George had heard the commotion, never mind anyone in the house.
To make matters worse, Rufus had wanted a repeat performance in the morning. “Practice makes perfect,” he’d joked as his hands and mouth had started work again on her sore and aching body.
When they finally emerged downstairs for breakfast, everyone had stared at Alice. The girls sniggered and smirked, with the exception of Tasha who looked at her as though she was smeared in something unspeakable, and the boys, with the exception of Magnus, gave Rufus lewd winks and thumbs up gestures. Some even slapped him on the back. It was all so embarrassing.
She had wondered how her father had known where to find her last night—why, of all the places he could have searched for her, he had chosen Rufus’s bedroom. It turned out that Tasha, annoyed that they had given her the slip—when they were supposed to be finding her father and Julia to tell them that Rufus had shown up unexpectedly—had seen them sneaking off inside the house and had put two and two together and had helpfully pointed Alice’s father in that direction when he’d asked her if she knew where Alice was.
She was glad when the last of the guests had left. Now all she had to cope with was her father. Leaving Rufus to talk with his mother, she went to look for him, wanting to get the inevitable over and done with.
She found him sitting in his car. She went round to the passenger’s side of the Jaguar and climbed in. For a long moment they sat in silence. Alice thought of all the journeys they’d taken together. The destination wasn’t important, he used to say, it’s the journey that counts. Was there a chance, just the merest chance, he would think the same about the journey she was currently embarking upon?
“I forbid you to see him again, Alice,” he said.
“I don’t think you can do that, Dad,” she said quietly.
“He’s not good enough for you.”
“He said you’d say that.”
“He’s…he’s only doing this to get at me.”
“Oh, Dad, not everything’s about you.”
“Is that something else he’s filled your head with?”
She turned and looked at her father. Really looked at him. When was the last time she had done that? She let her eyes travel the familiar, yet at the same time unfamiliar track of his profile. His nose was a bit on the beaky side, but as her friends had teased her yesterday, he wasn’t a bad-looking man for forty-five. His hair needed cutting—Mum always used to do it for him, but since he’d married Julia, and when he remembered, he went to a barber. He hadn’t gone grey yet and his hair was still the same dirty blonde it had always been. She’d been proud of him last night, all dressed up in his ancient dinner jacket, even if he had annoyed Julia by refusing to wear a bow tie. Sitting beside Alice now, he was dressed in faded jeans and a woollen sweater over a pale-blue denim shirt that matched the blue of his eyes. The collar of his shirt was askew: she could see he hadn’t buttoned it correctly. She remembered how Mum used to say he couldn’t be trusted to get himself dressed of a morning. She thought of him dressed as a pirate when she’d been little—the moustache he’d glued to his top lip, the peg leg he’d strapped on, the eye patch. He’d gone to so much trouble. And all for her. She felt her throat tighten. “I love him, Dad,” she said.
He turned to meet her gaze. “Then why do you look so miserable?”
“It’s not Rufus who’s making me miserable, it’s you.”
“Is there nothing I can do to make you see sense?”
“What have you got against him? You’re not still angry about him asking for a car, are you?”
Her father snatched his gaze away from her and gripped the steering wheel. “I don’t trust him. I never have. I once caught him snooping through my desk.”
“Perhaps he’d lost something and thought it might have got caught up with your things?”
He snorted. “The worst part is, I blame myself entirely. And don’t think for a single moment that the irony of my actions is lost on me.”
“What do you mean?”
“That by marrying Julia I as good as invited a pernicious cuckoo into our nest here at Cuckoo House. I’m scared he’ll push you out of it, Alice. That…that you’ll be lost to me. Swear you’ll never tell him about the house, that as of yesterday you now own it.” He whipped his head round. “You haven’t told him already, have you?”
“No, Dad, I haven’t.”
They sat in silence again.
Until her father said, “If you won’t heed my warnings, you will be careful, won’t you? I’m talking about contraception. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. A baby would screw it up.”
She reached out and touched the hand that was nearest to her. “I’ll be careful. I promise.” He stared at her hand.
“Have I been such a poor father to you?” His voice was low and unbearably forlorn.
“Why would you think that?”
He shrugged. “If he ever hurts you, in any way, I’ll make damned sure he pays for it.”CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
Not surprisingly, things were never the same again after that weekend.
Alice and Tasha returned to school for their final year, but not as friends. Tasha made that very clear. Bad enough that Alice and Rufus had been carrying on behind her back, but then, in Tasha’s own words, to flaunt their relationship by shagging themselves senseless and for all to hear, was “just plain disgusting.”
A fortnight after the party, with an essay on Andrew Marvell to do, Alice was working in one of the study cubicles in the school library when the door opened at the far end of the room. Knowing she was alone, she leaned out of the cubicle to see who had come in and spotted Tasha with Freya Maynard; they scarcely left each other’s side these days. “Alice is nothing but a two-faced slut,” she heard Tasha say. Her cheeks burning, Alice rocketed forward in her seat to try and conceal herself. The words of Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress,” rose up before her from the book of the desk. “Then worms shall try that long-preserved virginity, and your quaint honour turn to dust, and into ashes all my lust.”
She snapped the book shut.
Footsteps approached. “Oh, it’sher.”
Never had so much contempt been poured into so few words. Alice turned round as casually as she could. It was time for yet another performance of sparkling indifference. Anything but let Tasha think she was rattling her. “Oh, it’syou,” she said in return. She picked up a pencil and twirled it for extra nonchalance. “And for your information, Tasha, I am not a slut.”
“Then why do you behave like one?”
“What is your problem? No, really. What exactlyisyour problem? Why does it bother you so much that your brother loves me?”
“Love? Oh, come off it, Rufus doesn’t love you.”
“I’d say I’m in a better position to know that than you.”
“What position would that be? Flat on your back with your legs wide open?”
Freya laughed. She was playing her part of subordinate sidekick well. Alice leaned forward and tapped Tasha on the arm with the pencil. “Careful what you say, Tasha. If you make me out to be such a slut, what does it make Rufus?”
Tasha recoiled from the pencil. “I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you’ve blinded my brother and trapped him. I know what you’re up to. You want to be one of us, a Raphael, and you think by having Rufus you’ll achieve that. Well, it won’t work. You’re not one of us. And you never will be. You’re just a nobody. A weirdo Barrett. I’m embarrassed to be associated with you.” She linked an arm through Freya’s. “Come on, Freya, let’s find somewhere more conducive to study.”
The door closed after them with a wheezing mechanical shoosh, followed by a soft, decisive thud.
Exhausted from the strain of her performance, Alice slumped forward and rested her head against her forearms on the desk. Not only was she a slut for loving Rufus, but she was a nobody. What was that all about? And what the hell was so special about being a Raphael? Anyone would think Tasha was a member of the royal family the way she carried on. Alice didn’t know which of them was the more self-deluded—Tasha, or herself for believing this was just a small glitch in their friendship, that once Tasha had got things into perspective they would be best friends again.
Now, though, she was wondering if she wanted to be best friends with someone who could be such a vicious bitch.
Alice had always known that Tasha idolized her brother but now she understood that it was an exclusive right to idolize him. Probably in Tasha’s eyes no one else was good enough for Rufus. Well, tough luck girl! Rufus thought she was more than good enough. Hadn’t he claimed her? Her heart lurched at the memory of him saying,You’re mine now.
The day after the party and before he’d left Cuckoo House to return to London, Rufus had asked Alice to go for a walk with him. “While you were talking to your father, I spoke to my mother,” he’d said. “She seems to think that for the time being it would be better all round if we don’t make too much of a big thing about our relationship. She doesn’t want your father to be any more antagonized. As she rightly pointed out, there are your exams this summer to think about. Mine, too.”
“You don’t regret telling them about us, do you?” she had asked him.
“Of course not. But last night I got carried away with the excitement of it all. With hindsight, maybe it’s a situation that needs careful handling. You are my stepsister, after all. Not that that worries me. What’s more important to me is that your father needs to know that he can’t go on controlling you in the way he does. You have to stand up to him.Wehave to stand up to him. We’re not children anymore.
“He doesn’t control me,” she’d said indignantly.
“No?” Rufus had given a little shrug. “Well, whatever you say. Now I don’t want you to worry over the coming weeks and months. I’m being assigned to a hospital as of next week, so I won’t be easy to get hold of.”
“Can I write to you?”
“Of course. I’ll do my best to write back, but as you’ve no doubt worked out for yourself, I’m not much of a letter writer. But keep yours coming. Who knows, I might get some time off and surprise you with a visit if I get the chance.”
It was only after he had left for London that Tasha revealed the true extent of her disgust for Alice’s behaviour. Later that evening, Alice’s father had driven them back to school. No one had spoken for the duration of the two-hour drive and Alice had felt nauseous the whole way. It hadn’t been from car-sickness.
Thinking now of Rufus’s rock-sure certainty, Alice decided to write to him. She would tell him how awful Tasha was being; he would sort everything out. He would tell Tasha not to be so stupid. If Tasha was going to listen to anyone, it would be Rufus.
How wrong could she have been?
Not about Tasha, but about Rufus.
• • •
A month after Alice posted her letter—a long, worrying month during which she didn’t hear from Rufus—she received a reply. She and Tasha were at home for half term when his letter arrived.
I’ve always been honest with you and so I’ll come straight to the point. I’ve met somebody else and being with her makes me realize that you and I were kidding ourselves when we thought we were in love with each other. Your father would never have accepted me, so this is best all round. I hope you can see the sense of what I’m saying and won’t make any trouble. When all is said and done, you are my sister and we have to get along.
P.S. At Mum’s request, I’m planning on being at Cuckoo House for Christmas.
Alice couldn’t believe it. Or the offhand way she had been dumped.
It wasn’t possible. How could he have done it? How could he have tossed her aside so easily?
She read the letter over and over. If she didn’t know his handwriting so well, she might have convinced herself the letter was a malicious hoax on Tasha’s part. But there was no denying who had written it. No denying, either, that in one sweep of his pen, he had broken her heart.
With each reading of the letter, she began to doubt everything he’d ever said to her since that day when he’d first kissed her in this very room. Had he ever cared for her? To end things so abruptly—to allow himself to “meet” somebody else—had there ever been anything of a genuine feeling in his entire body for her? What had he been thinking when he’d “met” this somebody else? Had she bedazzled him to the point where he lost all memory of Alice? Or had Alice never really featured in his conscious mind? She thought of the many letters she had written to him, of the desperately lonely weeks when she didn’t hear from him. She thought of how she had given herself to him the night of her birthday. Only now to be discarded so cruelly.
Apart from her father, who was upstairs in his darkroom, Alice was alone in the house—Julia and Tasha had gone shopping—and safe in the knowledge that no one would hear her, she lay on her bed and cried herself out. Never had she cried so much in all her life.
There seemed no end to her tears. Each time she thought she might be nearing the end of them, she would remember a conversation with Rufus, a look from him, a smile, or a gesture, and she would be consumed by a fresh wave of desolation. The memory that hurt her the most was the night of her party, when he’d turned up to surprise her. That had to have been real, surely? He couldn’t have gone to so much trouble if he hadn’t cared about her, could he?
Or had Dad been right? Had it been nothing but a carefully constructed plan on Rufus’s part to get at her father, to torment him in the worst possible way? Alice had to concede that given the circumstances—her having sex with Rufus virtually under his nose—her father had acted with extraordinary and uncharacteristic restraint.
A knock at the door had her lifting her head from the pillow. “Go away!” she croaked. She’d lost track of the time and supposed Tasha and Julia were back from shopping. To have Tasha gloat over what Rufus had done to her would be more than she could bear.
The door opened. “Alice?”
At the sound of her father’s voice, she said, “Haven’t you learned yet not to burst in on me?”
Frowning, he came over to the bed. He sat on the edge of it. “What’s wrong, love?”
She thrust Rufus’s letter at him. “See for yourself. Just don’t be too happy about it.”
She watched him read the letter, his eyes flickering along each line; some of the words were smudged from her tears. When he’d finished, he carefully folded it in half, then in half again. He put it on her bedside table. Next to the framed photograph she had of Rufus. The framed photograph she had kissed good-night every time she switched off the light. “I’m sorry,” her father said. “I’m sorry I allowed him to hurt you. But I warned you. I warned you he was a little shit. Didn’t I say that I didn’t trust him?”
“It’s not him, Dad!” she wailed. “It’s you. You made him do this! He would have loved me if it hadn’t been for you!” She didn’t really believe what she was saying but she needed to blame someone and her father hadn’t exactly helped the situation, had he?
“Oh, Alice, don’t let him do this to you. He’s not worth it.”
“Don’t keep going on about how awful he is. I loved him, don’t you understand that? He was everything to me.Everything!”
“For two seconds in your life, he was everything. But not anymore. Now he’s nothing. And don’t think I’ve forgotten the promise I made to you. I said that if he ever hurt you, I’d make him pay.”
• • •
Things went even further downhill from then on. Alice and Tasha returned to school but a week later Alice was diagnosed as having glandular fever and because her father was away in Norway on an assignment, Julia had to come and fetch her home.
Alice had always considered Julia’s presence at Cuckoo House as being little more than that of a shadow. She was a vacuous woman who rarely held an opinion that wasn’t a cliché. Alice’s mother would have hated her; she would have condemned her in an instant as being a neurotic, wishy-washy bore. Doctor Barbara Barrett had been very keen on backbone and ambition. The only task Julia had carried out with any real purpose was when she had arrived at Cuckoo House with Tasha and Rufus and had organized people to cook, clean and maintain the house for her. Since then her input had been minimal. Certainly this was the first time she had tackled the drive to school on her own.
It was also the first time that Alice had spent more than ten minutes in her company alone. Alice had absolutely no idea what to say to her during the journey and so she feigned sleep.
Which would have worked had Julia not been in the mood to talk. “Do you feel very poorly?” she asked Alice.
“Yes,” Alice replied, her eyes closed. She couldn’t recall ever feeling this ill before. She felt leaden, her head too heavy for her neck to support, her throat scratchy and raw, her every nerve zinging. The doctor had said it was unlikely she would return before school started again in January. Even then, he’d warned her she might not feel up to it.
“You’ll probably want to go straight to bed when we get home,” Julia said.
“Yes,” Alice replied again.
“Have you heard from Rufus?”
Alice said nothing.
“Does it still hurt?”
What was this, state the obvious time?
“Love’s a fickle thing, Alice.”
“I can understand why you would have fallen for him.”
Shut up. Shut up. SHUT UP!
“But really, when you look at it objectively, what you imagined you felt for Rufus was nothing more than a teenage crush. You’ll soon get over it. Just remind yourself that a childhood without a crush wouldn’t be a childhood.”
“Could you not talk about it, please?” Alice said hoarsely.
“It’s easy to get confused when our emotions are involved,” Julia said as if Alice hadn’t spoken. “We all make mistakes.”
Yes, thought Alice. My father definitely did when he married you.
“We all do things we regret.”
Yeah, tell me about it.
“Things have recently become very difficult between your father and me. He’s not an easy man to live with.”
Alice opened her eyes and turned to regard her stepmother. “I don’t think he’s at all difficult.”
Julia shot her a sideways look. “How do you put up with him?”
“There’s nothing to put up with. He’s my father.”
Again as if Alice hadn’t spoken, she said, “God knows I’ve tried, but I just don’t seem to be able to make him…” Julia’s voice faded away and she started to cry.
Oh great, thought Alice. Just what she needed; a feeble, weepy Julia. “If you’re going to cry perhaps it would be safer if we pulled over,” she said wearily.
They pulled over into a layby. Cars and lorries thundered by, shaking the Range Rover Dad had bought Julia last year. “I thought you’d be able to help me,” Julia sniffled, her pale face spotted with ugly red blotches. “Bruce never loses his temper with you.”
“That’s because I don’t annoy him.”
“You think I do?”
Julia cried even harder. “I don’t think I can take much more.”
“Then go. Just leave him.”
“It’s not as easy as that.”
No, thought, Alice, it isn’t, is it? “My father is nothing more than financial security to you, isn’t he?” she said coldly.
Julia blew her nose and glanced nervously at Alice. “Why do you say that?”
Alice looked her stepmother dead in the eye. “I know,” she said. “Iknowwhy you married him. So does my father.”
Julia’s lips trembled. “I don’t think we should continue with this conversation.”
“Why not? It’s the first time we’ve ever had anything that remotely resembles an honest conversation. And if you want the truth, you’re not a patch on my mother and that’s probably what drives my father mad. He despises you. He despises the fact that you’re so weak and can’t stand up to him.”
More tears spilled down Julia’s face. “You hate me, don’t you? You hate me nearly as much as your father hates me.”
“I don’t, actually. You’re nothing to me. Just as Rufus is nothing to me. Just as Tasha means nothing to me. Do you know what she’s put me through at school? She’s telling everyone I’m a slut for loving your precious son. I may be a fool, but I’m not what she says I am.”
Julia sniffed loudly and rummaged for a tissue in her bag. “Tasha’s very attached to Rufus. She…ever since her father died, she’s worshipped the ground he walks on.”
“And you think that’s healthy?”
“I don’t really see anything wrong in it. But I’ll tell you what is wrong, and that’s how Bruce treats me. Have you ever wondered about the way your mother died?”
Alice stiffened. “It was an accident.”
“Not suicide, then? You don’t think she finally snapped, that she woke up one morning and realized she couldn’t go on living with a mad man?”CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
Alice wasn’t proud of herself. But then these days she hardly knew herself. Nor did she seem able to control her anger.
She had said that Julia meant nothing to her, but this turned out not to be true. Alice was consumed with loathing towards the woman, spewing toxic hatred at her for the slightest of reasons. Often for no reason at all. If she couldn’t exact revenge on Rufus, she would settle for making his mother’s life even more wretched than it already was. Every time she laid eyes on Julia or heard her thin, pleading voice, the coil of revulsion inside Alice tightened. Whenever Julia made yet another attempt to placate or reach out to her, or excused Alice’s behaviour on the grounds that she wasn’t well, Alice upped her game. When her throat allowed it, she screamed foul-mouthed abuse at her stepmother. One day she hurled a book at her. Who would have thought she would prove to be so thoroughly her mother and father’s daughter?
After weeks of taking whatever insults and spite Alice threw at her, Julia finally showed a hint of spirit and came close to fighting back.
It was three days before Christmas—Tasha hadn’t yet come home from school; she had gone to stay with Freya—and Alice was in the kitchen rolling out pastry for mince pies whilst her father sat at the table reading aloud to her from P. G. Wodehouse’sThe Code of the Woosters. Story time, late afternoon when the light had gone from the day, the two of them companionably alone in the kitchen, had become a regular event and was the highlight of Alice’s day. It was a comforting reminder of when she’d been little and her father had read to her at bedtime.
“That was Tasha on the phone,” Julia said, breezing into the kitchen and instantly destroying the cosy, tranquil atmosphere. “She and Rufus will be arriving tomorrow afternoon.” She looked directly at Alice, an unexpectedly brave, challenging look of score-settling in her eye. “Rufus is bringing his girlfriend with him. I trust you don’t have a problem with that?”
Alice tightened her hold on the rolling pin.
“You don’t think it would have been polite to have checked first?” her father asked without looking up.
“Polite, in the sense of tiptoeing around Alice’s feelings? Is that what you mean?”
Bruce carefully marked his page, closed the book and faced Julia. “You know damned well that’s exactly what I mean.”
Julia laughed bitterly. “Whoever considers my feelings? Whoever wonders how I feel about something?”
“Oh, do put a sock in it, Julia! Why should anyone else contribute to the stockpile of your self-absorption when you do such a fine job of it yourself?”
What little fight Julia had mustered was gone. “Is that what this Christmas is going to be like?” she asked, her voice tight and overwrought. “Am I to be nothing but the butt of your cruelly barbed comments?”
“We wouldn’t be having this tedious discussion if you hadn’t been so high-handed and encouraged your son to flaunt his new girlfriend under Alice’s nose. But thanks to you, I think it’s safe to say that we’re now set for a real old Rice Krispie Christmas. And by that, I mean there’ll be plenty of snap, crackle and pop. Really, Julia, you have only yourself to blame.” He turned his back on her dismissively and returned his attention to P. G. Wodehouse. He flicked through the pages. “Now then, Alice, where were we?”
“Do not treat me this way,” Julia said. Her words were spoken slowly and a little breathlessly.
He said nothing.
Alice resumed rolling out the pastry.
“I said do not treat me this way.”
“‘I am a shy man, Bertie.’” Bruce read aloud. “‘Diffidence is the price I pay for having a hyper-sensitive nature.’”
A stifled squawking sound came from Julia’s direction and then the door crashed shut. For several moments, both Alice and her father carried on as if nothing had happened. When the tense atmosphere in the kitchen had stopped reverberating, he raised his head from the book.
“You OK?” he asked.
Alice blinked. “I can’t believe Rufus could be so crass. Couldn’t he have waited?”
“I could put my foot down and say he can’t bring her with him, but that would be exactly what he’d want me to do. That way he gets to play the hard-done-by stepson. By letting him bring his girlfriend with him, you and I are going to prove just how meaningless he is to you now.”
Alice put a finger to her lip. Her father was right. But he was also wrong. Horribly wrong. This was the first time since she had blamed him for Rufus finishing with her that they had openly discussed him again. She knew though that he had had plenty to say on the subject with Julia. She had heard him shouting at her, describing Rufus’s behaviour as manipulative and cold-hearted, devious and callous. Julia’s response had been to say that Alice had known perfectly well what she was getting into, that in actual fact, it had been Alice who had cleverly manipulated Rufus into a relationship with her.
With her father so certain that Rufus now meant nothing to her, how could she tell him that she had secretly been hoping that when he returned to Cuckoo House for Christmas and spent some time alone with her, Rufus would see what a terrible mistake he had made? How could that happen now, now that he was bringing his new girlfriend home with him?
“Carry on reading, Dad,” she said as she pressed a crinkled-edged metal cutter into the pastry.
• • •
The following afternoon, in a state of high agitation, Julia set off to the station.
From the moment Isabel Canning stepped over the threshold of Cuckoo House, she swept into their lives like a breath of fresh air. In Alice’s mind this unknown quantity had been cast in the role of Public Enemy Number One. Meeting her face to face made Alice realize that her cause to win back Rufus was lost. There wasn’t a chance in hell of Alice competing with this incredible creature. Blonde, blue-eyed, and beautiful beyond belief, she looked older than Alice had expected. She was charmingly jolly and she greeted Alice and her father like long-lost friends. Either Rufus hadn’t explained the situation to her, or she was a better actress than Alice could ever hope to be.
Within an hour of being in Isabel’s company, Alice could quite understand how Rufus had fallen under her spell. She had a knack for showing great interest—whether it was genuine or fake—in her surroundings or whatever somebody was telling her. She enthusiastically admired the criminally expensive curtains and sofa Julia had recently had made for the sitting room, she raved ecstatically over the Christmas tree Alice had decorated, declaring it the most perfect she had ever seen, and she was particularly interested in Bruce’s work, professing to dabble in photography herself—a remark that would normally elicit a snort of derision from him. She somehow managed to extract a promise from him to show her his darkroom before she left.
So much for Public Enemy Number One.
All the while, Rufus looked on with pride and adoration shining in his eyes. Never once did he look directly at Alice. Why would he when he had this wondrous and enchanting goddess to gaze upon? He was completely captivated.
However, Tasha was not so captivated. Maybe that was because she knew Isabel was a genuine threat. This was no teenage crush; this was a fully formed woman who had stolen her brother’s heart. It explained to Alice why Tasha appeared to have returned to Cuckoo House with a shyly extended hand of friendship towards Alice: she needed an ally. Who better than the girl whose heart had been broken by her brother? That was why she had been all smiles since arriving home. That was why she had asked how Alice was feeling. That was why she had said what an awful time she’d had whilst staying with Freya and how brilliant it was to be back and how much she had missed Alice. By anyone’s standards, it was an audacious U-turn. Did she really think Alice was so desperate for their friendship to be restored that she would conveniently forget all that had passed between them?
• • •
The running of Cuckoo House was not as efficient as it had once been. A sullen, greasy-haired woman with a nose stud and a habitual sniff came in once a week to clean halfheartedly and after suffering a heart attack, Mrs. Randall had abandoned their kitchen. Seeing as her father couldn’t really be trusted to cook without setting fire to anything and rarely could Julia handle anything more complex than an omelette without a panic attack, Alice had assumed responsibility for cooking over the Christmas holiday. Whilst stuck at home, and since she had been well enough, she had been teaching herself to cook to relieve the boredom. Stupidly she had planned to astound Rufus with her newly acquired culinary skills. Tonight she was going to cook roast duck with an orange and cranberry sauce.
But Isabel wouldn’t hear of it. “We can’t have you slaving away in the kitchen on your own,” she insisted, “not when you’ve been so ill. Tasha and I will help you.”
“What about me?” Rufus asked, “I could help as well.” He looked and sounded as if he didn’t appreciate being left out. He had a hand placed around Isabel’s waist; a hand Alice was trying hard not to look at.
Laughing, Isabel shook him off. “Away with you! Go and spend some time with your mother. It’s ages since you last saw her.”
When he pouted like a small child denied his favourite toy, she laughed again. “Go on,shoo!This is girl time. I’m going to find out from your lovely sisters everything about you that you’ve tried to hide from me, and I don’t want you butting in.”
Rufus exchanged his first direct glance with Alice and visibly paled. Oh, my God, she thought, Isabel didn’t know anything, did she?
• • •
Public Enemy Number One. Alice had to keep reminding herself. But it was useless. How could she hate Isabel? How could she hate anyone who was such fun and who was showering such warmth, kindness and encouragement on her? They were standing together at the sink, peeling potatoes, and Isabel was promising that when the time came, she would put in a good word for Alice and Tasha with an old family friend who was a theatrical agent in London.
“I don’t believe in nepotism,” Tasha said sulkily. She was sitting on the worktop, banging her heels against the cupboard below. She was twisting a length of silver tinsel in her hands and the glowering expression on her face suggested that any minute she might take Isabel from behind and garrotte her with the tinsel. “I want to know I made it to the top through my own merit,” she added, “otherwise why bother?”
Isabel had to be aware of Tasha’s brooding hostility towards her but nothing in her conduct betrayed how she felt about it. Her manners were impeccable. “Gosh, Tasha, you’re so right,” she said cheerfully. “I applaud your conviction. I’m afraid I don’t have half your talent, so am quite shameless in asking for a teensy leg up when necessary.”
“What kind of work do you do?” asked Alice, curious. She couldn’t imagine Isabel doing any kind of boring nine-to-five job or anything remotely practical. She couldn’t peel potatoes properly, that much was obvious. Alice had surreptitiously redone the ones she’d hacked at.
“What do I do? Oh Alice, I wish I knew sometimes. Well, officially I’m an events organizer, you know, organizing parties, conferences, charity balls, that sort of thing. Hopelessly superficial.”
Isabel laughed. “Unofficially I’m a free spirit looking for a sense of purpose to my life. I dabble here and there. One minute I want to be an artist, the next I want to be a photographer. That’s why I’m so fascinated by your father. I’m so in awe of him. I’ve come across his work time and time again. He really does take amazing pictures. But then you know that, don’t you? You must have the most incredible photo albums of you growing up. I’d love to see them.”
Tasha’s heels had taken up a faster and more vigorous beat against the cupboard door. “That’s the funny thing about Alice’s father,” she said, “I can’t recall him taking a single photograph of us as a family.”
Alice smiled awkwardly. “It’s true. Dad’s always preferred taking pictures of wildlife or landscapes.”
“I don’t blame him,” Isabel said. “People can be enormously tiresome the moment you point a camera at them. Not that you’d be tiresome,” she added quickly before Alice had had time to register any kind of a slight.
“Exactly how old are you, Isabel?” Tasha said. “You seem so much older than Rufus.”
“Oh, I’m positively ancient.” She laughed. “Call the police, I’ve cradle-snatched your brother!”
“I reckon you’re thirty,” Tasha persisted.
“Thirty,” Isabel repeated with a raise of her elegant eyebrows. “Well, I’ve always been told I look older than I am, but you’re out by five years.”
“You’re twenty-five?” Alice intervened, keen for some strange reason to repair the damage Tasha was doing. “You look much younger than that.”
“That still makes you quite a few years older than Rufus, doesn’t it?” Tasha continued relentlessly. “What’s it like going out with a toy boy?”
“It can be a terrible pain sometimes,” Isabel said with a weary sigh. “I can’t tell you how often I’ve forgotten to blow his nose for him or make sure he’s home in time for bed.”
Alice smirked, but knowing she’d been made fun of, Tasha looked furious. She jumped down from the workshop. “I’m bored,” she said. “I’m going to go and talk to Rufus.”
When they were alone, Isabel said, “Would I be right in thinking Tasha doesn’t like me very much?”
“She’s very protective of her brother.”
“What about you, Alice? Are you very protective of Rufus?”
“Are you asking me if I like you?”
Isabel smiled. “That’s exactly what I’m asking you.”
To her amazement, Alice replied, “I didn’t think I would at first, but yes I do.”
“Thank you. Now tell me everything you think I should know about Rufus. No holding anything back. I want to know all his nasty habits. Apart from the fact he hates it when he can’t get his own way.”
• • •
During dinner, Rufus was displaying this very same trait. Tasha had laid the table in the dining room and had decided where they would all sit—she must have devised the seating plan with malicious pleasure. She had put her mother and Bruce at each end of the table with Rufus between his mother and Alice and Isabel between Bruce and herself. Rufus was far from happy with the arrangement. Especially as Isabel was asking Bruce so many questions about his work and was hanging on to his every word. Alice hadn’t seen her father so animated in a long while. He was happily playing the part of generous and affable host, pouring wine, cracking jokes and heaping endless praise on the cooks who had produced the meal. He was enjoying himself, Alice realized.
Unlike Rufus, who, stuck with his lacklustre mother and Alice for conversation, was clearly having a miserable time. Alice had tried to engage him in conversation, but no matter what she said—and given the circumstances, she thought she was being remarkable big-hearted—he wasn’t interested. His attention was focused entirely on Isabel. Every now and then she would slide a glance in his direction and beam a dazzling smile at him.
They had moved onto dessert when Rufus clinked his spoon against his glass. “I have an announcement,” he said. They all turned and looked at him. “I was going to wait until Christmas Day, but I’ve never been known for my patience, so here goes. Isabel and I are going to be married.”
There was a momentary silence. Not one of them had seen that coming. Not even Isabel, from the startled expression on her face.
“Well, isn’t anyone going to congratulate us?” Rufus demanded.
“Of course, darling,” Julia said quickly. “We’re all absolutely delighted for you; it’s just that it’s…it’s so sudden. You’ve taken us completely by surprise.”
At the other end of the table, Bruce laughed raucously. He reached out to Isabel and placed a hand on her forearm. “Isabel, do you have any idea what you’re letting yourself in for by marrying Rufus? If I were you, I’d start running. Oh, take that look off your face, Rufus, I’m only joking. You can take a joke, can’t you?”CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
At breakfast the next morning, Tasha said, “I know a good joke. Would you like to hear it, Isabel? It’s about Alice and Rufus.”
Alice froze. As did Rufus.
“Shut up, Tasha,” he said.
“That’s no way to speak to me, Rufus. Not on Christmas Eve. It is supposed to be the season of good will, after all. Honestly, Isabel, you’ll love my joke. Take no notice of Rufus. Actually, Alice knows the joke better than me; she should tell it to you really. Alice?”
“I think I’ll pass on breakfast,” Alice murmured. She pushed back her chair and stood up. She was halfway to the door when her father came in. “Dad,” she said, “why don’t you show Isabel your darkroom?” She fixed him with a wildly frantic look, praying that he’d catch on, that he was entering a potential war zone and needed to get out fast, preferably taking Isabel with him to avoid an almighty showdown.
“You must be telepathic, Alice,” he said brightly, “I was just going to ask Isabel if she’d like to take a look.”
For once Rufus was in agreement and practically hustled Isabel out of her seat. The perfect guest, Isabel merely frowned prettily and went along with what was being suggested. When she was safely out of ear shot, Rufus said, “Alice, don’t go. We need to talk.” He closed the door, blocking her escape.
“Oh, well if you two are going to have a cosy tête-à-tête,” Tasha said offhandedly, “I’ll leave you to it.”
Her brother turned on her. “The fuck you will! Now sit down and tell me what the hell you thought you were playing at?”
Tasha’s mouth dropped. She couldn’t have looked more shocked if Rufus had physically struck her. She quickly rallied, though. “I just think your future wife should be aware that you screwed her future sister-in-law then dumped her. Don’t you?”
“Why, Tasha?” Rufus replied. “Why would you think that was a good idea?” He turned to Alice. “Is this your doing? Have you put her up to this as an act of revenge?”
“No! The last thing I want is for anyone else knowing how you humiliated me.”
His eyes narrowed. “I didn’t humiliate you, Alice. You and I had a bit of a thing for a while and then I came to my senses and finished it with you. End of story.”
“If that’s all it amounted to, why don’t you tell Isabel that?”
“Oh, don’t be obtuse! From the outside looking in, it looks a darn sight worse than it really is, you being my stepsister.”
Alice tried not to flinch at his casual dismissal for her love for him. “It doesn’t look so good from the inside looking out, if you want my opinion.”
Rufus started furiously pacing the length of the kitchen. “Is this what you’re going to do for the rest of my life? Hold me accountable for a moment of madness?”
“I’m not doing anything!” Alice had to stop herself from screaming the words in his face. “If I could take a pill to make me forget what we did, then I’d take it right now. I’d take a whole bloody bottle of pills if it meant I could wipe you completely from my memory! And in case you’ve forgotten, it was Tasha who wanted to reveal our dirty little secret, not me.”
He swung his gaze round to his sister. She stared back at him with a determined and defiant expression. “I just think you should be honest with the woman you’re going to marry, Rufus,” she said. “How would you feel if Isabel concealed something like this from you?”
He went over to her. “Tasha,” he said, his tone suddenly soft. He rested his hands on her shoulders. “I’ll give you anything you want, I’lldoanything you want, so long as you never breathe a word of this to Isabel. I don’t want to lose her. She means the world to me and I don’t want anything to spoil my happiness. Do you understand that?”
“But how can you be sure that you love her, or that she loves you? You’ve known her for no more than a few months. Why do you—” Tasha’s voice cracked. “Why do you always have to go and change things?”
He took her in his arms. “Oh, Tash, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve known someone when it’s the real deal.”
She tilted her head back to look up at him. “But wasn’t that how you felt about Alice?”
Wishing she was invisible, Alice moved quietly towards the door to escape. She didn’t want to hear Rufus’s reply. Hadn’t she been put through enough already? But she was too slow.
“What I feel for Isabel couldn’t be more different from what I felt for Alice,” he said. He glanced over to Alice. “And that’s the truth.”
“Fine,” she said. She opened the door and fled. Her eyes brimming with tears, she ran upstairs, passed Julia on the landing and nearly knocked her flying. She locked herself in her room and lay on the bed, exhausted. Dr. Whittaker had warned her that she shouldn’t overdo it, that it took a long time to fully recover from glandular fever. How about a broken heart? How long did that take?
She fell into a deep, dreamless sleep and two hours later she awoke to an eye-opening revelation. It was no longer her heart that needed mending; it was her pride. She sat up and explored this thought further. She didn’t love Rufus anymore. She didn’t know when it had happened, but her feelings for him had changed. They must have changed because how else would she have been able to cope with the last twenty-four hours if she’d still been in love with him? No, what was hurting now was her pride. It was the shame of knowing she had allowed herself to be treated so shabbily that hurt. Well, it was time to hold her head up high again. Because if she didn’t, the alternative was to turn into an emotional wreck like Julia. She would rather die than do that.
Buoyed up with a new inner strength, she slid off the bed and went over to the turret. Staring out of the window, she took in the grey half-light of the day. The end of the garden and the surrounding moorland was hidden by thick freezing fog. There was no sign of the sun. It was by far the gloomiest Christmas Eve Alice had known. Snow was predicted for tomorrow. A white Christmas. Would that cheer them all up?
She thought of Rufus’s shock announcement last night at dinner. From the expression of surprise on Isabel’s face, Alice didn’t think they had agreed to break the news that evening. Maybe Isabel had wanted to tell her parents first.
As a result of the announcement, they had learned a lot more about Isabel. Like Alice, she was an only child and her mother lived in America with her third husband—she had been widowed twice before. Isabel had grown up in Norfolk in a house that sounded straight out of a Bertie Wooster story with its house parties and grouse shoots. Two years ago Isabel’s mother had met a New York financier, eighteen years older than her, and had moved to live in a place called the Hamptons. Alice had never heard of it but Rufus clearly had because he said he was really looking forward to going there with Isabel. Isabel described her mother’s new home as being excessively overstated, but infinitely more civilised than the freezing cold mausoleum in Norfolk where she had grown up.
Alice’s breath had formed a patch of condensation on the window. She wiped the pane of glass and below her in the garden she saw two figures emerge from the fog: her father and Isabel. In his hands was a camera and he was pointing it at Isabel. Dressed in a thick scarf wound loosely around her neck and what Alice recognized as her father’s tattered duffel coat, Isabel was striking a series of comical poses. Bruce moved slowly about her, capturing her every pose, her every angle. Walking backwards, he beckoned her towards him, all the while the camera placed firmly to his eye. Recalling how only last night Alice had said that her father rarely took photographs of people, preferring penguins and snow-capped mountains to human beings any day, she felt a shadow of unease settle on her. She shivered and took a step back from the window. But not before a kaleidoscope of faded memories flashed before her.
She pressed a finger to her top lip and tapped it. He wouldn’t. Oh, dear God, he absolutely wouldn’t.
• • •
Seldom did Alice’s father encourage guests to visit Cuckoo House, but for the last three years, much to Julia’s horror, as well as Tasha and Rufus’s disgust, he had invited George to join them for Christmas lunch. She always turned up late, tricked out in an actual dress and with a bottle of her famously noxious home brew. Today was no exception. She was introduced to Isabel and Alice could see Rufus cringing that his precious wife-to-be was being forced to rub shoulders with such a fright. But Isabel took George in her elegant stride and was as charmingly interested in her as she had been with the rest of them. “You keep chickens? How wonderful! That’s what I intend to do one day. How many do you have? And what about foxes? Do have much of a problem with them?”
“I shoot the blighters. I hope you’re not one of those lily-livered types who objects to such things.”
“Good Lord, no! My stepfather taught me to shoot when I was ten years old.”
“I think shooting’s barbaric,” remarked Tasha.
“You wouldn’t think that if you’d found your henhouse had been massacred by some mangy, flea-ridden fox. Bruce, haven’t you taught this girl anything about living in the country?”
Bruce held up his hands. “Not my bailiwick, George. Any complaints should be directed to her mother.”
• • •
It was after lunch, during present-giving time, when everyone was groaning from having eaten too much and flinging wrapping paper in all directions, that they took their places for the opening scene of the final act of the drama they were caught up in. Alice had always wondered just how much of what followed could have been avoided had it not been for those bloody cherry liqueurs.
With his customary air of indifference, Alice’s father handed Julia a present. He didn’t wish her a Happy Christmas, nor did she utter a word of thanks. Alice watched her picking uninterestedly at the sticky tape. When Julia finally had the paper off, she looked over to where Bruce was sitting next to Alice. “Why?” she asked. “Why have you given me a box of cherry liqueurs when you know I hate them?”
“Do you?” he said with exaggerated astonishment. “Since when?”
“Since forever. Since before the very first time you gave me a box and all the times since.” Her voice had spiralled to an embarrassing high-pitched whine.
Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, well, I’ll see if I can do better next year. But why don’t you try one? Who knows, you might find you like them. People do change.”
“Some people will never change and that’s the greatest disappointment of my life!” She flung the box across the room at him. It caught him on the chest then dropped to the floor at his feet. She ran from the room.
“Bruce Barrett, you are such a bastard,” Rufus said. He rose slowly from the sofa where he was sitting with Isabel. “Chocolates. Is that all you think my mother’s worth? A box of chocolates you know perfectly well she doesn’t like?” He moved towards the offending box. He lifted a foot and they all knew what he was going to do next.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Bruce said quietly.
Rufus brought his foot down with a vicious stamp and crushed the box. He then turned to Isabel. “I want you to know here and now, Isabel, you will not be subjected to this vile man’s company ever again. This will be the last time we come here.”
“Oh, don’t talk such rubbish, young man.”
It was George who had spoken. Rufus glared at her with contempt. “No one asked you for your opinion, you filthy, mad old hag.”
“Rufus!” This was from Isabel. She looked genuinely horrified. “You can’t speak to a guest like that.”
“She isn’t a guest,” he responded hotly. “She’s a hanger-on. The local crazy woman.”
George smiled happily at the description but Alice was incensed. “Rufus,” she said, “apologize to George immediately.”
Rufus laughed. “You have to be out of your mind. Hell will freeze over before I apologize to her.”
“Then I suggest you leave.”
“Isabel and I will leave when we’re good and ready.”
Alice got to her feet. She squared up to Rufus. “Isabel is perfectly welcome to stay as long as she wants, but you,” she pointed a finger at him “are not.”
He laughed. He actually laughed. “Oh, do us all a favour and shut up, Alice.”
“Don’t tell me what to do in my own house.”
Tasha joined in. “It isn’t your house, Alice, so stop telling Rufus what to do.”
Alice managed a wan smile. “Actually, Tasha, this house does belong to me, so I’m perfectly entitled to say who is welcome and who is not. And right now, your brother isn’t.”
Both Tasha and Rufus stared at her.
“Yes, you did hear me correctly. Cuckoo House became mine when I turned eighteen. So if I were you, I’d start behaving yourselves.” She turned to Isabel. “I’m sorry you’ve had to witness this ugly scene, but as my father warned you, you really ought to know what kind of a family you’re marrying into. Oh, and by the way, Rufus and I slept together on my eighteenth birthday. Ask him about it. He’ll tell you it was all very casual and meaningless. Well, it was on his part. I made the same mistake as you; I fell in love with him. Hard to fathom how or why now.”
Isabel’s eyes grew wide and she stared at Rufus.
“You bitch!” He shouted at Alice. “You total sodding bitch!”
“I’m warning you, Rufus, speak to my daughter like that again and you’ll regret it.”
As if heeding the warning from Alice’s father, Rufus took a moment to compose himself. “Tasha, Isabel,” he said, “come on, let’s leave them to it.”
Tasha was immediately at her brother’s side, but as Rufus grabbed her hand and pulled her from the sofa, Isabel appeared less sure. At the door, she hesitated. Alice smiled at her, hoping to convey a look of understanding, that she knew Isabel was caught between a rock and a hard place.
“Are you coming, Isabel?” Rufus was glowering furiously.
“Yes,” she said.
“Bravo, Alice!” Her father said when they were alone.
Alice sighed. “Thanks, Dad. Sorry I had to pull rank on you. You know, telling them about the house.”
“Think nothing of it. It was time it was said.”
Alice picked up the crushed box of chocolates.
“How about a drink?” Bruce offered. “George, I expect you’d like something after all that, wouldn’t you? I know I do.”
“Dad? What’s this?” In Alice’s hands, the flattened lid had slipped off the box and instead of smashed chocolates inside, there was a necklace; a delicate gold chain with a solitaire diamond. She held it up and the diamond sparkled in the firelight. “Oh, Dad, why didn’t you tell Julia what you’d really given her?”
“What does it matter? What does any of it matter?” He went over to the tray of drinks on the table behind the sofa. “George, what do you fancy?”
“Give me something stiff with plenty of kick.”
• • •
It was three thirty in the morning and Alice couldn’t sleep. Some Christmas it had turned out to be.
Rufus hadn’t left immediately as he’d threatened. The weather forecasters had got it right about the snow. It had started falling shortly after George’s departure; slowly at first then quickly, gathering momentum until it was a full-blown blizzard. Only a fool would have set off in such treacherous conditions. Rufus was many things, but he wasn’t a fool.
It was still snowing; Alice could see and hear it pattering softly against the window. It was years since they’d been snowed in, but if it kept up like this, in all likelihood no one would be going anywhere for the next twenty-four hours.
Rufus had apologized in a desultory fashion for losing his temper and Alice suspected that Isabel had had something to do with that. Alice had wanted her father to give Julia the necklace he had bought her, if only to make peace over Christmas, but he’d shaken his head and said enough was enough. Alice wasn’t entirely sure what he had meant, but she hadn’t pressed him. Having locked herself in her sanctuary after the cherry liqueurs fiasco, Julia had childishly refused to come out. If it had fitted, Alice would have been tempted to slide the necklace under the door with a note telling her to stop acting like a sulky teenager.
Resigned to a sleepless few hours ahead of her, Alice decided to go downstairs to make herself a drink. Rather than risk disturbing anyone, she didn’t switch on her bedside lamp but carefully made her way to the door, then out onto the landing. She had reached the bottom step when she heard noises coming from the direction of the sitting room. The door was open a crack, letting a faint glowing light from inside spill out in the darkness of the hallway.
Alice went to investigate. Maybe it was her father and like her he’d been unable to sleep. She suddenly thought how nice it would be to have his company, to mull over the day’s events together.
At the door, she hesitated before peering through the tiny gap. What if it wasn’t her father? What if it was Rufus and Isabel?
The first thing she saw was the Christmas tree with the lights switched on. Then she saw the log fire burning in the grate and the two naked bodies directly in front of it. There was no mistaking what they were doing. Or that it was Isabel with her head of silvery-blonde hair cascading around her shoulders, her skin radiant in the firelight, who was lying on her back with Alice’s father moving languidly on top of her. They were both gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, wholly immersed in each other, their expressions intense.
Neither of them was aware of Alice or that she had crept away.CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
Most people would agree that Boxing Day could not be anything other than a forgettable anticlimax to the main event. But Boxing Day at Cuckoo House that year proved to be the exception to the rule and became a day no one would ever forget.
When Alice had finally managed to sleep she had fallen into a profoundly deep, dead-to-the-world kind of sleep. As she surfaced, heavy-headed and befuddled, she recalled a disturbing dream she’d had of her father and Isabel. But then her head cleared. It hadn’t been a dream. It had been real. All too real. It had really happened.
She threw on the first clothes to hand and hurried downstairs. If her father and Isabel had fallen asleep in the sitting room, there would be all hell to pay if anyone else discovered them. Or was that what her father had planned all along: to be discovered? Was this his way of paying Rufus back? To destroy his relationship with Isabel? Oh, God, was her father really capable of such a thing? Had he planned this from the moment Isabel had set foot in the house and he’d understood the extent of Rufus’s feelings for her?
The sitting room was empty. The Christmas tree lights were still switched on but the fire had burned out. There was no sign that anything untoward had taken place here. Even so, Alice checked for any damning evidence; stray items of underwear would be sure to set alarm bells ringing.
Alice didn’t know what to do next, other than go upstairs and wake her father and demand to know what the hell he had thought he’d been doing. But how would she react if he was to say he had done nothing but fulfil his promise to her?
She took refuge in the kitchen and while she busied herself with making a pot of tea, she stared out of the window. Beneath an unwaveringly crystalline sky and a brightly shining sun, the snow was already melting, dripping off tree branches and exposing patches of grass. A blackbird was pecking intently in a small circle of exposed earth. It eventually found what it was looking for: a worm.
The sound of raised voices from upstairs and running feet broke the still quiet. What now? Had Rufus discovered what his fiancée had done? Alice went to find out.
Julia was on the landing. She looked dreadful, as though she had aged a hundred years overnight. Her face was deathly pale, her eyes were bloodshot and tears were streaming down her face. Next to her was Rufus and wearing only a pair of boxer shorts, he was reading something. A letter? “No!” he cried. “No!” He dropped the piece of paper to the floor, turned on his heel and shot off towards his room.
“What is it?” Alice forced herself to ask. “What’s happened?”
Julia’s answer was to lean against the wall behind her and slowly slide down it until she was crouched on the floor. She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. She started to cry. “How could he?” she wailed, more to herself than Alice. “How could he do this?” Her hand flew to her mouth, stifling a scream.
Her heart racing, Alice picked up the discarded piece of paper. Her father’s handwriting was instantly distinguishable. She had read no more than a few words when Rufus reappeared. He was wearing a pair of jeans now and a T-shirt. “Her clothes and case have gone,” he said. His voice was unlike Alice had ever heard it before. It had lost all of its potent clarity.
Dreading the answer, Alice said, “Do you know where my father is?” She was hoping against all hope that her worst fear wasn’t about to be realized.
Julia suddenly let out a manic scream. “He’s gone as well!” she screeched. “Read the letter for yourself.”
“But he can’t have. Not without saying good-bye.”
“It seems your father’s capable of anything,” Rufus seethed. “Go on, read the letter. It’s all there.”
So it was. Bruce Barrett and Isabel Canning had run off together. There were no words of apology. No remorse. No regret. Just a few lines about living life to the full and seizing the day. There was no mention of when he might be back. With or without Isabel.
“What’s all the noise about?” It was Tasha, emerging from her bedroom like the bleary-eyed dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. “Oh God, Mum, you’re not still crying over those bloody cherry liqueurs, are you?”
Alice left Rufus and Julia to explain. She ran downstairs to the kitchen, unlocked the back door, and raced round the side of the house to the garage. Her father’s Jaguar was still there but Julia’s Range Rover was gone. There was a single set of tyre tacks in the snow that lead inexorably away from the house. “Oh, Dad,” she murmured. “What have you done?”
• • •
She was held personally responsible, as if it had been her job to control her father. The sad truth was, shewasresponsible. Her father had done this entirely for her benefit. He had exacted his revenge on Rufus in the cruellest way imaginable. Having made their feelings clear, no one wanted to talk to Alice now. Julia had shut herself in her sanctuary and downstairs in the sitting room, after Alice had made a fire, Tasha and Rufus had holed themselves up in there, making it obvious she wasn’t welcome to join them. Not really knowing why she was doing it, other than needing to be busy, Alice put a tray of coffee, mince pies and sandwiches together for Rufus and Tasha. She didn’t bother knocking, just went straight in.
Standing by the fireplace, his knuckles white with the force of his grip on the poker, Rufus was jabbing a log into place. “I thought she loved me,” he was saying. “I really did. But she couldn’t have felt anything for me, not when she could go off with a man old enough to be her father.” He shook his head, gave the log another vicious jab.
Now you know what it feels like, Alice thought nastily.
“I suppose you’re quietly cheering to yourself,” Tasha said as Alice put the tray down on the table in front of her. “And you can take that away,” she added, pointing at the tray. “We don’t want anything from you. If we want anything to eat, I’ll make it myself.”
“Tasha, don’t be such an idiot.” With great effort, Alice kept her voice level.
“Don’t call me an idiot. Not when your father has broken my brother’s heart, not to mention what he’s done to our mother. She’s up there in her room, inconsolable. I doubt she’ll ever get over the shame of what that disgusting man has done.”
“I’m sorry,” was all Alice could say. Although part of her wasn’t.
“I bet you were in on it, weren’t you?” Tasha continued. “Your father probably told you what he was going to do. I wouldn’t put it past you to have helped the pair of them slip away in the night.”
Rufus whipped round from the fire. “Did you, Alice? Did you help them?”
“No! I’m as shocked as you are.” Well, that wasn’t totally true, was it? She’d had a warning. She’d seen them in the garden. And then last night. Could she have stopped them? If she had spoken to her father, would he have listened?
Something in Rufus’s face made her think he didn’t believe her. “Our situation here is now untenable,” he said. “Just as soon as our mother is feeling better, we’ll leave. You can stay here all on your own, Alice. I certainly don’t intend to be around when your father returns. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of ever setting eyes on me again.” How pompous he sounded. “Now if you’d kindly leave us alone, Tasha and I have things to discuss.”
Untenable, repeated Alice silently as she left them to it. What did Rufus think this was, a Victorian melodrama?
For days, weeks and months afterwards, Alice looked back on that day and wondered if Rufus ever blamed himself for what happened next. Certainly she blamed herself often enough. Had Rufus taken a different line, if he had been more of a support to his mother or forced her to pull herself together, would the worst have been avoided? But he did neither of these things. Instead he indulged her weeping and wailing and added to her hysteria by insisting they had to leave, saying Alice couldn’t wait to be rid of them. The tension and ill-feeling escalated until, in the end, Alice did shout at him and his mother that she would be glad to see the back of them.
• • •
An excruciating twenty-four hours later, during which time there was no word from her father, Alice went out to the garage to sit in his car. She thought she might find some kind of solace there. Despite what he’d done, and despite the appalling mess he’d left her to cope with, she wanted to feel his presence. Where better than his beloved old Jag?
When she opened the garage, she found that his car had been trashed. The tyres had been slashed and the paintwork had been scratched; there were places where it had been gouged quite deeply. When she approached the driver’s seat, she saw Julia slumped over the steering wheel. At first Alice thought her stepmother was asleep, sleeping off her petty act of revenge.
But Julia wasn’t asleep. When Alice tried to shake her awake, her body was stone cold. On the passenger seat beside her was an empty bottle of sloe gin liqueur, along with a selection of empty pill bottles.CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
The silence was abrupt and long.
Clayton waited patiently for Alice to continue, but she didn’t. He wasn’t very good with silences—he always felt uncomfortable around them, like he was with police officers and tax inspectors—but in this instance he was determined to keep his mouth shut. There would be no putting his great, big clumsy foot in it.
After taking a lengthy, steadying breath, Alice spoke again. “I’ve never forgotten that moment,” she said, “when it hit me that Julia was dead, that she had taken her own life. She had hinted that she might do as much, that day in the car when she came to fetch me home from school. She had said she didn’t know how much more she could take. She had even questioned whether my mother had killed herself for the same reason. But I didn’t think she meant it. I simply never took anything she did or said seriously. I should have done more for her.”
“You don’t really think you were responsible for her death, do you?” Clayton said.
Alice shrugged and turned to look at the glowing embers in the grate. “I was very cruel to her at times. My father and I were so dismissive of her.”
“She could have left any time she wanted. She chose to stay. Whatever her reasons for doing so.”
“Only because she was weak. A stronger woman would have walked away. She wasn’t that woman. Aren’t the weak supposed to be helped by the strong?”
Clayton didn’t respond. Another moment of silence passed between them. “Dare I ask what happened next?” he said quietly.
Alice turned to look at him. “Ah, the writer in you wanting all the ends tied up?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, I’ll give you the shortened version. A post-mortem was carried out and Julia’s death was officially recorded as a suicide. There was talk of her having been under a lot of stress recently, of her being unhappy. Both Rufus and Tasha went as far as to say that my father was to blame, that he had as good as tipped those pills down her throat. Naturally that had everyone wondering for a while. Was it possible? Had Bruce Barrett murdered his wife? Then, of course, my mother’s death was raked over again. The gossip machine was churning like mad by this stage. The local newspaper played its part and then a couple of the nationals picked up on it. The combination of my father’s reputation as a photographer of some repute, and his first wife having had a public persona for a number of years was too tempting a story to pass up. Not to mention that he had scooted off with a woman so much younger than himself.”
“Where was your father when all this was going on?”
“He’d disappeared. No one could track him down. The police knew that at the time Julia had been sitting in his car swallowing handfuls of pills he and Isabel were on a flight to Chile, but from then on there was no trace of the pair of them. I remember him saying after my mother’s death that he had been glad he was out of the country when she had died as then no one could point the finger in his direction. He must have been relieved it happened again in the same way.”
Clayton knew he was probing unashamedly, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Did you ever seriously wonder about your mother’s death?” he asked.
“For no more than a blink of an eye. My mother was not the suicidal type. If she was unhappy she would have sooner killed my father than herself.”
“And when did your father finally surface?”
“A week after Julia’s funeral. He telephoned to say sorry for having gone off without leaving a note for me. He said he’d felt badly about that but knew I’d understand in the end. I told him about Julia. He went very quiet but when I asked him to come home, he said he couldn’t do that. I begged him. “Do this one thing for me,” I pleaded. But he wouldn’t budge. Not even when I threatened never to speak to him again if he wouldn’t come back when I needed him most. He told me I’d be fine, that I didn’t need him anymore. I yelled at him that he was wrong. I ranted. I cried. I called him a selfish bastard for only thinking of himself. He said he was being anything but selfish, that he was thinking only of me. “You don’t deserve the shame of having me around,” he said. “If people want to think I drove Julia to suicide, it’s better for you if I’m not there.” He went on to say that he was starting a new life with Isabel. I told him he had to be out of his mind. He said that maybe he was, but he didn’t care because Isabel made him happy, happier and more alive than he’d felt in years. He went on about life being for living and that he hoped if a chance of happiness came my way I’d have the sense to take it. I reminded him that I’d thought I’d be happy with Rufus and look where that had got me. And then I told him that as of that moment, since he obviously cared so little about me, he no longer had a daughter. My last words to him were to say that I would never speak to him again. Ever.” She sighed deeply, closed her eyes and when she opened them she pressed a finger to her top lip and stared into the fire. She looked so solemn, so very sad.
“Do you think your father really did plan to use Isabel to get back at Rufus?” Clayton said as he watched her reach for a log and toss it into the embers of the fire, sending sparks flying. “Or do you think the attraction between them was real from the word go?”
Without looking at him, she nodded. “It wasn’t until some time later that I came to the conclusion that the attraction was genuine. I thought about the way I’d seen him photographing her in the garden and I knew there had been a powerful intimacy to what they were doing, as if he was already making love to her through the lens of his camera.”
Clayton could picture the scene all too well. “And what of Rufus and Tasha?” he asked. “What happened to them?”
“They left the day after the funeral. I never saw or spoke to them again. Tasha didn’t return to school. I asked the headmistress if she knew where Tasha had gone to finish her A-levels, but she didn’t know. Rufus’s last words to me were to say he hoped I was satisfied now, now that my father had destroyed his family.”
“He had a highly tuned sense of drama, that young man,” Clayton said.
“Could you blame him? His mother was dead and he’d lost his fiancée.”
“He could have done a lot more himself to avert the disaster. I get the feeling his every word and action was carefully orchestrated. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but do you think he ever really cared about you?”
“I think my father was right: Rufus had been playing a game. He hated my father and used me to get at him. He knew, or thought he knew, that I was the only thing my father cared about. In the end, he was proved wrong on that score. Bruce Barrett only ever cared about himself.”
“I’m sure that wasn’t true,” Clayton said. “Your father lost his head over a beautiful woman; he wouldn’t be the first man to do that.”
“That may well be true and I know this is going to sound like I’m wallowing in self-pity, but he never came back. That hurt. He wrote to me, but I couldn’t bring myself to read his letters. I threw them away. Every single one of them. I didn’t want to read about what a great time he was having, I just wanted him to come home. Then I made sure he couldn’t. I completed my A-levels, sold Cuckoo House—it was mine after all—and took a gap year. I left no forwarding address. I cut all ties with the place. The only person who knew where I was, was the solicitor I used in Derby to handle the sale of the house, and he was under orders not to pass on my new address to anyone. I used the same solicitor to change my name by deed poll. A year later than planned, I took up my place at university—not my first choice, just in case I could be traced, and I pretended I was somebody completely different. I gave myself a whole new back story. Just as my father had embarked on a new beginning, so did I.”
“You were very thorough.”
“Anger and rejection can do that to a person. Also, I didn’t want anyone to associate me with what had happened. I wanted a clean slate. I saw myself as the Queen of New Beginnings.”
“Do you have any idea if your father tried to find you?”
She shook her head.
“Do you ever regret that?”
Frowning, she said, “This is starting to sound like one of those awful daytime programmes when the host keeps asking probing questions and then a curtain swings back and a mystery guest, in this case my father, is wheeled on.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so tactless.”
“Oh, blunder away. The truth is, yes, I do regret what I did. Especially when I read of his death. It wasn’t his obituary, just a reference to the fact that Bruce Barrett, the naturalist photographer, had died some five years earlier. In some ways, that was really what forced me to leave behind my life in London. The knowledge of his death seemed to compound the sense I had of having reached a dead end. The acting roles just weren’t coming my way. Have you any idea how humiliating it is to audition for a blink-and-you-miss-it-walk-on part and not get the part? Too animated, I was once told.”
“I’ve been on the receiving end of far worse rejections, I can assure you. A commissioning editor at the BBC once thanked me profusely for the script I’d submitted. He said he’d run out of newspaper to line his son’s hamster cage and my pages of mind-numbing effluent had arrived in the nick of time.”
She smiled faintly. “You had the last laugh, though.”
“Sometimes I wonder.”
After another prolonged silence, Clayton said, “I know this is going to sound tactless again, but when you learned of your father’s death, did you find out anything about his life after he left here?”
She shook her head. “All I know is that he died in Argentina about seven years ago. And before you ask, no, I’ve never felt the need to go there and find his grave so I can pay my belated respects. What would be the point, when I’ve always felt the spirit of him never really left this house?”
She yawned hugely and looked at her watch. Clayton glanced at his: it was nearly midnight. “I must go,” she said. “It’s late and the neighbours will start to talk.”
“George has this place watched, does she?”
“No, not George. I was thinking of my neighbours, Ronnetta and her son, Bob. Bob tends to keep rather a close eye on me.”
“In a good way? Or a bad way?”
“In a habitually tedious kind of way.”
She was on her feet now. As was Clayton. “You’ll come back, won’t you?” he said.
“Of course. We had a deal; my story then yours.”
• • •
Clayton saw Alice to the door, then watched the red tail lights of her car slowly disappear into the night. He locked up, but instead of turning out all the lights and going upstairs to bed, he returned to the room where they had spent the evening. He threw another couple of logs on the fire and reflected on all that Alice had shared with him. He could only wonder at the effect that being back here must be having on her. Whatever her feelings were, she hid them well. But then he guessed that was a skill she had learned at a very young age. For him, one of the most interesting things she had said was that she believed the spirit of her father had never really left Cuckoo House. Was it fanciful of him to think that she was right? How else could he explain the feeling he now had that any minute the door could swing open and, large as life, in would stride Bruce Barrett?
With his back to the fire, Clayton closed his eyes and listened to the silence of the house. Only a matter of seconds passed before the silence was crowded out with voices. He could hear laughter as well. And tears. There was no doubt about it, the Armstrongs—and any other owners before them—may have stripped the place of its superficial trappings, but nothing could erase Alice’s childhood from the house. He could feel it as acutely as he could feel the warmth of the fire on him. He opened his eyes and took a deep breath. He went and settled himself at the desk, took another deep breath and switched on his laptop.
A writer has an inexhaustible supply of excuses for why he cannot get down to the job in hand. It’s too early. It’s too late. Too noisy. Too quiet. Not enough caffeine in the bloodstream. The light is wrong. The paper isn’t the right sort. The bookshelves need re-arranging. Venus and Jupiter are entering Uranus. Oh, the list is endless. However, for the poor devil suffering from writer’s block, there is only one reason for not being able to write and that is debilitating fear; the fear that the brain is no longer wired in the way that it once was. The consequence of this is that with each failed attempt, the fear grows and grows until one day life simply doesn’t seem worth living anymore.
Clayton had come terrifyingly close to that low point. He had known what it was to sit alone, late at night, at his desk contemplating his demise.
But now, with the kind of assurance he so rarely experienced, he knew he was free of the crippling fear he’d lived with these last few years. The wires had reconnected inside his head and it felt good. It felt bloody good! He was zinging with creative energy.
He hadn’t felt like this since working on that first magical script forJoking Aside.
With no work booked for the next day, Alice treated herself to the luxury of a lie-in. She stayed in bed until nearly eleven o’clock and the only reason she dragged herself from the warmth of duvet heaven was because there was an insistent ring at the door. She had ignored the first ring. And the second ring. But whoever was down there hammering the bejazus out of the bell was plainly on a mission to spoil her day. Maybe it was important. Like the world was about to be hit by a meteorite.
She was wearing her warmest and thickest flannelette pyjamas—they were practically bulletproof, who knows, maybe even meteorite proof—so she didn’t bother with a dressing gown, but at the sight of Bob leering at her when she opened the door, she felt as good as naked. “Nice togs,” he said, leaning nonchalantly against the door frame and looking her up and down.
“Not working today?” she said.
“I’m having a day off.” His gaze travelled the length of her again.
“Is that for me?” she asked pointedly.
He tore his eyes away from the apparent allure of her flannelette body armour and looked at the parcel in his large, shovel-like hands. “The postman left it with us when he couldn’t get a response from you earlier.” He grinned. “Looks like I succeeded where he failed.”
“It must be your superior technique.”
The grin widened. “I’ve certainly had no complaints over the years.” He gave her a wink, just in case she’d failed to catch the double entendre. “So what’s with the sleeping in till nearly lunchtime?” he asked. “Recovering from a hangover after your late night out?”
“And what were you doing up past your bedtime spying on me?”
“Just keeping an eye on things. Somebody’s got to look out for you, Alice.”
“Any particular reason why?” When he didn’t reply but seemed to be working up to say something else, she jogged his memory about the parcel: it looked like the manuscript she had been expecting.
“I’ll take that then, shall I?”
He hesitated. “If I give it to you will you have a drink with me tonight?”
“If that’s how you usually ask a girl out, Bob, you might want to work on it. In my experience blackmail isn’t the best approach.”
“But I’ve used all my best chat-up lines on you and they haven’t worked. What else is left for me?”
Oh, what the heck, she thought. Why not put him out of his misery and have a drink with him? What would it cost her? And who else was asking her out for a drink these days? “OK,” she said, “what time tonight?”
“You’re serious?” He looked like he couldn’t believe his luck.
“I’m only saying yes to a drink, Bob.”
“Eight o’clock suit you?”
“That’ll be perfect.”
“And you’ll wear something nice? Something hot and tight?”
“Don’t push your luck, Bob, or you’ll feel something hot and tight wrapped around your neck, like my hands.”
His masculine pride firmly reinstated, he gave her the parcel and sauntered away. “See you at eight. Don’t be late.”
She closed the door and wondered if she had done the right thing. Was having a drink with Bob tantamount to handing him a condom with her name written on it? Probably. She blamed her rashness on last night. Too much rattling around in the past had addled her brain.
• • •
Showered and dressed and sitting at the kitchen table while eating a late breakfast of porridge and flicking through the newly delivered manuscript, she thought of the incongruity of having shared so much of her life story with a stranger. OK, not a complete stranger, but even so, it was still odd that she had confided in Clayton when she had never so much as breathed a word of her upbringing to anyone else. But then really, whom would she have wanted to tell? Certainly not any previous boyfriends. Not when they’d all borne an uncanny resemblance to Rufus. That would have really freaked them out. It would also have freaked her out to admit it.
She had never consciously chosen to date men that were carbon copies of Rufus—nothing could have been further from her mind when she’d taken the plunge at university and started dating—but that was the way it had gone. It was as if she had approached a pick’n’mix counter for boyfriends and asked for a quarter of dark, floppy-fringed hair, a quarter of olive skin, a quarter of penetrating blue eyes and a quarter of fatal charm. Oh, and if a sprinkling of arrogant bastard could be added, so much the better. They hadn’t always had that last quality, but many had. Whilst James Montgomery could in no way be described as a boyfriend, he had fitted the profile, just minus the arrogance.
Nobody needed to tell her that it wasn’t healthy to be drawn to Rufus clones. It wasn’t good. She really had to stop it. Yet how could she stop something she wasn’t conscious of doing until it was too late? Perhaps her evening out tonight with Bob would help to broaden her horizons. An evening in his company might make her consider a different sort of man. Just not Bob!
Breakfast dealt with, she decided it was time to tackle something that was long overdue.
• • •
She arrived at Well House late afternoon; the light was already fading. A lamp shone from one of the downstairs windows and the dented and rusting boot of a familiar car peeped out from the side of the house. Two clues that suggested the mistress of the house was at home.
The house looked just as it always had: in need of urgent repair. Alice thought how sad it would be when the inevitable happened—when George’s death would bring about the sale of Well House. The new owners would doubtless take the stone-built property by the scruff of its neck and transform it into a lavish country residence, stripping away all trace of its previous eccentric owner.
As she had always done, Alice went round to the back door. She was pleased to see that the same tarnished brass bell was hanging in the same place in the porch. The porch resembled an untidy potting shed more than a form of entrance; there were gardening implements propped against the walls, clay pots stacked into teetering towers, and parts of a dismantled hose surrounded a galvanized metal bucket. The bucket contained some murky water and when Alice looked up, she saw why; there was a hole in the porch roof.
She gave the bell rope a firm tug and waited. She suddenly felt nervous. George was the only living person who had known her since the day she was born and there was going to be some explaining to do.
“And about time too,” George said when she opened the door. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you’ve been avoiding me. Come in.”
The same George. No standing on ceremony. A wave of regret swept over Alice. New beginnings were all very well, but here was a very poignant reminder of what Alice had so decisively put behind her. Of what she had lost.
Ushered into the kitchen, Alice felt as though she had truly stepped back in time. Nothing had changed; it was as if she had been here only yesterday. A large, brutish rooster eyed Alice from the hearth rug in front of the Rayburn. He scratched at the rug, puffed out his chest, stretched his neck and strutted towards her. It was far from a flattering thought, but Alice was immediately reminded of Bob.
“Away with you, Percy!” George shouted. “Another step and I’ll take a broom to you.”
As if understanding every word, the rooster deflated himself and went back to loitering with menacing intent on the hearth rug.
“He’s full of hot air,” George said to Alice. “Take no notice of him. So what’ll it be? Tea, coffee or something stronger?”
“Since I’m driving I’ll take the safe option; tea, please.”
“Well then, don’t stand there like a spare part, grab a chair and sit yourself down by the stove while I do the honours.”
Alice did as she was told and carried a heavy wooden chair from the table over to one side of the Rayburn. Percy didn’t look at all happy with the arrangement and again raised himself up to his full adversarial height.
“Just give him a firm boot to his tail feathers and he’ll soon get out of your way,” George instructed. “Like most men, he’s all cluck and no peck.”
The tea made, George eased herself stiffly into the armchair opposite Alice. Alice had naively hoped that George would have defied the passing of the years, but she was unquestionably older. Not exactly frail, but certainly not as robust as Alice had remembered her.
“Right then,” George said with an unnervingly direct stare over the rim of her mug, “tell me all you know about my new neighbour at Cuckoo House.”
This was not the opening line of conversation she had been expecting and Alice took a moment to recalibrate her thoughts. She also felt just a tiny bit slighted. Didn’t George want to know what she had been doing all this time and what she was doing back here?
“And you can drop the charade about his name being Shannon,” George said. “I know as well as you do what his real name is. The day I gave him a lift to the shops, I saw a picture of him in a newspaper. That beard wasn’t fooling me.” A promise was a promise in Alice’s book. “I’m sorry,” she said with her best innocent face firmly in place, “you’ve lost me entirely.” George looked stern. “His name’s Clayton Miller, as in rhymes with Baby Killer, as posted on the Internet. It’s really quite disgusting what people can get away with writing these days. Did you know that there are people out there in cyberspace playingWhere’s Miller?You know, likeWhere’s Wally?People with nothing better to do are sending in photographs of sightings of him all over the world. He’s everywhere: Swindon, Paris, Belfast, Mozambique. There’s any number of sightings of him in Bruges, supposedly following in Stephen Fry’s footsteps.”
Alice suddenly burst out laughing. “George, what in the world are you doing with the Internet? You never even used to have a telly. I remember you thinking a pop-up toaster was the last word in decadence.”
George bristled. “If I can find a proper use for something, I’m quite prepared to use it. I’m choosy, that’s all. And if you must know, I’ve joined an online bridge circle. Those chat rooms are interesting, aren’t they?”
Unbelievable, thought Alice. “You be careful,” she said. “You never know who you’re chatting to.”
“It works both ways,” George said with a sly smile. “So, and now that we’ve established we both know exactly who he is, how did our interesting visitor at Cuckoo House end up here? Did you have something to do with that?”
“George, I really can’t comment on—”
“Balony, maloney! Is he a friend of yours? Is that it?”
Alice could see she had no choice but to concede. “Look, I made a promise to him. Please don’t ask me anything else.”
The old woman slurped her tea noisily. “Fair enough. I can respect that.” Another noisy slurp. “He seems nice. I like him. Needs taking in hand, don’t you think? Is that what you’re doing?”
“I’m not really doing anything. And he’s not a friend either. I’ve only just met him.” Alice explained briefly about Ronnetta and the cleaning agency, which in turn provoked a line of questioning Alice had been expecting when she arrived. She told George everything, about her life after leaving Cuckoo House.
“Well, that’s all that neatly clarified,” George said when she had finished. “Apart from the one glaring omission of why you didn’t come and see me when you moved back up here. Or did you think I’d long since shuffled off this mortal coil?”
“You’ll never die, George. You’ll outlive us all. But to answer your question, I think you were a connection too far. If I’m really honest, I was worried you’d tell me something I didn’t want to hear.”
“Such as my father might have been in contact with you at some point and…” Alice faltered. This was something she had steadfastly refused to let herself think about, that her father had tried looking for her, that he really had cared.
“And asked if I knew where you were?” George finished off for her. “Is that what was worrying you?”
Alice swallowed. “Yes. Did he?”
• • •
Clayton had been up all night. Once he’d got started, the words had poured out of him with an unstoppable force. It had been one of the best nights of his life. He’d written for most of the day as well. But now he could barely keep his eyes open and no matter how much coffee he drank, he simply could not stay awake a minute longer.
He decided to take a nap. He kicked off his shoes and lay on the sofa. He closed his eyes. Oh, that felt good. He wriggled a bit to get comfortable, adjusted the cushion under his head and then felt himself drifting. Drifting…drifting…drifting.
He was in a hot-air balloon, looking down on Cuckoo House. He could see Alice staring at him from the garden. She was waving and he was waving back at her. “Don’t go,” she called out. “Don’t leave me behind.” He floated away until finally he was hovering over the rooftops of London. The skyline looked like it did from that Mary Poppins film. He’d always loved the film as a boy; he’d secretly had a crush on Julie Andrews. He floated on, passing Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and then he was above Notting Hill, and oh, look, there was Stacey. And Barry. They were waving to him. “I’ve got something for you,” he shouted down to them. He leaned over the side of the basket to throw it to them. “This is yours,” he called out. “You left it behind.” “No!” they shouted. “No!” But it was too late. The bundle was tumbling through the air; faster and faster it went. It was unravelling. First a tiny pink leg appeared and then another followed by a head and two hands. It was a baby. “No!” he screamed. “That wasn’t what I meant.”
He woke with a massive jolt; his heart was thumping hard. He lay very still, waiting for his heartbeat to slow down. It almost had when his mobile rang. He leapt from the sofa and instantly regretted his haste. Light-headed, he snatched up the phone from where he’d left it on the desk next to his laptop.
“This had better be good, Glen,” Clayton snarled.
“Love and kisses to you, sweetheart. How’s it going?”
“You really want to know.”
“No, I’m just calling because I have nothing better to do. Of course I want to know.”
“I’ve started writing.”
Silence from the other end of the phone.
“Glen? You still there?”
“I’m in shock. I’ve just picked myself up from the floor. Did I hear you right? You’ve started writing?”
“Hey, less of the sarcasm and more of the support for which I pay you so handsomely.”
“Tell me all. What have you got?”
“A bit of a departure from anything I’ve written before.”
“I like the sound of it so far.”
“What do you mean? Are you saying you didn’t like what I’ve written before?”
“Just when exactly did you get to be so needy?”
“Oh, go blow smoke up your gigantically oversized ego! Now shut up and listen. I think I’ve got something. Something that’s going to go the distance. It’s about a family. A gold carat, all the way to the top, screwed up family.”
“Mm…remind me, has that ever been done before?”
“Of course it’s been done before, but whoever got tired of watching other people mess up? Schadenfreude’s never going to go out of fashion.”
“Good point. Talking of which, according to a site on the Internet, you’re currently languishing on a beach in Mexico. There’s even a photograph of you. Although I’m inclined to think that showing you wearing nothing but a thong was an unnecessary touch.”
Clayton groaned. “Will it never end?”
“That, my friend, is something we need to discuss. I’ve been wondering whether you should come back to London and deal with things. Just get it all over and done with. It’ll be bloody, I’ll warn you, but I’ll be there for you. I’ll hold your dainty little hand every step of the way.”
“As tempting as the idea is of you holding my hand, the answer is no. I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying here.”
“I thought you hated it there?”
“But I can write here. This place is working for me. I’m not leaving and that’s flat.”CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN
The point of Glen’s call, other than to wind Clayton up, had been to let him know that Bazza and Stacey would be on the Stevie McKean show. Forget Brad and Angelina or the Beckhams, Bazza and Stacey were the new Golden Couple on the block. What the hell were they up to now? What latest promotional trick had they devised for themselves? Could it be yet more charity work? Perhaps they were campaigning to help the deprived credit-crunched kiddies of Notting Hill whose parents couldn’t afford violin lessons anymore? Or better still, were they there fund-raising for a donkey sanctuary in Darfur?
Whatever the cause, Clayton was under no delusion that his name wouldn’t be further besmirched during their television appearance—what chat show host could resist raising the subject? The last time he’d forced himself to watch them it hadn’t ended well.
But it wouldn’t happen now, would it? He was over that madness, surely? He could be trusted not to react and do something silly again? Couldn’t he?
Don’t watch the programme, Captain Sensible whispered in his ear.Avoid it at all costs.
Yeah right, like that was going to happen. This was classic road crash stuff. You could tell yourself all you wanted not to turn and stare, but there wasn’t a power in the world that could stop you from twisting round in your seat to have a jolly good gawp.
Well, if you must, Captain Sensible said priggishly,but be it on your own head. However, I strongly advise against watching it alone.
“Don’t watch it alone?” Clayton said aloud with disbelief. Just whom was he supposed to invite to watch it with him?
No sooner had he articulated the thought than it came to him whom he could, andwouldinvite. OK, it was pretty weird, but then what wasn’t weird about the set up here? Besides, she’d given him her mobile number and the instruction that if he needed anything he had only to ring her. Admittedly she had probably had something a little more mundane in mind when she’d offered her help. Keeping him company while he watched his two exes giving another tearfully brave performance on the teatime telly slot would not have been her first thought. Question was, should he insist that Alice restrain him if it all got too much? Should he warn her that on no account was he to be allowed to make a phone call?
OK, that was probably going too far. Having somebody with him, as Captain Sensible wouldn’t hesitate to point out, was the ideal precautionary measure. He’d be on his best behaviour with Alice. It would also provide a convenient segue to giving her his story. A deal was a deal, after all. Originally he’d had no intention of sticking to this supposed deal of you-show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine, but he felt he owed her something. For one thing she had proved to be pleasantly agreeable to be around, interesting and fun, and had very likely saved him from dying of boredom here. There was also the small matter of what he was writing to broach with her. It was only polite that he ask her permission to go ahead with it. Naturally, he’d abandon the project if she objected. No question. There were lines that should never be crossed. This was one of them. What kind of a man would he be to go against her wishes?
Hmmm…observed Captain Sensible with his arms folded in front of him.
• • •
Alice had intended to read through the manuscript ofLiar, Liar, Pants on Fireone more time in preparation for going into the studio next week, but Clayton’s phone call had made her change her good intentions. She hadn’t needed much persuading; the chance for some company was a welcome diversion. Her visit to Well House had been a lot more distressing than she had expected. She had been so deeply upset she had called off her evening out with Bob, much to his disappointment. She had claimed a headache. She didn’t think for one moment he had believed her.
What George had told her had left her feeling more alone and isolated than she had ever felt in her whole life. What hurt most was that she had to accept that she had made a terrible mistake and there was no way of righting it. How would she ever come to terms with that?
• • •
“You OK?” Clayton greeted her when she arrived at Cuckoo House.
Surprised that he should notice there was anything wrong with her, she shook off his concern. “I’m fine,” she lied offhandedly. She placed her coat over the back of a chair in the kitchen and noticed the tray of tea things on the table. There was a plate of biscuits and a Mr. Kipling fruit cake which she remembered seeing in amongst Clayton’s bags of shopping the other day. Over on the work top, it was action stations with the teapot and a box of tea bags all set to go.
With his back to her as he put the kettle on the hob, Clayton said, “You mentioned on the phone earlier that you’d been to see George yesterday. Did she scold you very badly for not visiting her before?”
“She was remarkably lenient with her scolding,” Alice replied, “but I ought to warn you, she knows who you are.”
Clayton turned round. “You told her?”
“I didn’t need to.” Alice explained about George seeing a newspaper and then checking him out on the Internet.
“She uses the Internet?”
Alice nodded. “I know; it’s too incredible for words. It’s like suddenly discovering the world really is flat. And don’t worry about her telling anyone about you being here. She would never do that.”
“My agent seems to think that I should go home and face the music.”
Alice felt a pang of disappointment. She would miss her visits here to see him. Or was it, she wondered, the house she would miss visiting? “When will you go?”
Clayton shook his head. “I’ve told Glen I’m not going. Not yet, anyway.”
“I’m glad,” she blurted out.
He looked at her hard. “Are you? Why?”
Embarrassed at her admission and worried that he might misinterpret it, she said, “Well, you don’t want to go back to London until the dust has properly settled, do you? And the longer you stay away from London, the more chance there is of those journalists finding someone else to get their teeth into. That’s all I meant. Kettle’s boiling,” she said helpfully.
With his back to her once again as he dropped two tea bags into the pot, he said, “I also have another reason why I want to stay on. The thing is, I’ve started to—” He broke off and turned to face her. “Is that your mobile ringing?”
“Not guilty; it must be yours.”
He put down the teapot, looked about him, then eventually located his phone on the other side of the kitchen beneath a hand towel. While he took the call, Alice finished the job of making the tea.
“No, Glen,” Clayton said wearily, “I haven’t forgotten. Yes, I’m well aware that it starts in ten minutes. I’m even more aware that you’ll make me miss it if you don’t get off the line. Yeah, it’s great that you care so much. Love you, too.” He ended the call and caught Alice’s eye. “I hope your agent doesn’t treat you like an idiot the way mine does.”
“What starts in ten minutes?”
He put his mobile on the table and picked up the completed tray. “The Stevie McKean Show. I thought you could watch it with me.”
“Any particular reason why?”
“To save me from doing something silly.”
• • •
“Why exactly are you putting yourself through the ordeal of watching Barry and Stacey being interviewed?”
“When I could have my teeth extracted without anaesthetic, you mean? Good question.”
“And the answer?”
Clayton passed Alice a biscuit. She was sitting on the floor just a few feet away from where he was fidgeting anxiously on the sofa. The first guest was banging on about a forthcoming comeback tour and album. He was a knuckle-dragging moron from a long-forgotten boy band with a drugs-to-hell-and-back biography to flog. He had yet to purchase his return ticket, by the looks of his glittering eyes. He was beyond dull. He was mind-numbingly, stultifyingly boring. He would make a baboon with a speech impediment sound articulate. “There’ll be a tour, right…an album, of course…it’ll be the comeback of all comebacks, man…it’ll make Take That’s comeback look like…like shit, man. Sorry, dude. Are we cool about swearing?”
“Still waiting for that answer,” Alice said.
“Sorry, I got sidetracked by the sparkling quality of this guy’s riveting banter. I’ve decided it’s time to see how I’ll react. Or rather, I want to know whether I’m overreacting.”
“OK, but here’s the deal. If you go psycho on me, I’m out of here.”
Finally, having exhausted the moron’s supply of misplaced bravado and shifted him from the sofa, Stevie McKean was now introducing his next two guests. The audience began their dutiful burst of enthusiastic applause. His body thrumming with nervous energy, Clayton slid off the sofa and joined Alice on the floor. His shoulder touched hers.
She turned and looked at him. Their eyes met and for the craziest of nanoseconds he contemplated kissing her. Anything to distract himself.
Erm…not a good idea, Captain Sensible cautioned from the back row of the cheap seats inside his head.
The applause reached its crescendo as Lucky Bazza and Stacey took their positions on the sofa. Stacey’s expression, as she acknowledged Stevie and the audience, was loaded with sugary Hallmark card sincerity. She even had the Princess Di head tilt going on.
“Well,” said Stevie when the applause had ebbed away, “you’ve had a busy time of it recently. I don’t seem to be able to open a magazine or a newspaper without seeing the pair of you in it.”
“I’ll second that,” Clayton muttered.
Lucky Bazza gave a coy little shrug as if to say, what’s a guy to do, can we help being so damned popular? “Yes, Stevie,” Stacey said gravely, “we’re hoping it’s all going to calm down before too long.”
“Like hell you do!” Clayton muttered.
“Are you going to mutter like that throughout the entire interview?” Alice asked.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” Stevie said with a twinkling, meaningful look. “I hope there’s an invitation in the post for me.”
Stacey reached for Lucky Bazza’s hand and they gazed sickeningly into each other’s eyes. After an eternity had passed, Stacey said, “You’re more than welcome to the wedding, Stevie, but I have to tell you, it won’t be anything grand. It’s going to be very low-key.”
“Oh, in that case I won’t come,” Stevie quipped. “I only do grand these days.” The audience tittered, as did the Golden Couple.
“We don’t want to do anything overly lavish,” Lucky Bazza said earnestly and speaking for the first time, “not when there’s so much human suffering in the world. It would seem obscene.”
“So no delicious photos inHello!for us to enjoy?”
If it were possible, Lucky Bazza adopted an even more earnest tone. “There will be pictures inHello!” he said, “but we won’t be touching a penny of the fee; we’re donating it to an orphanage in Malawi.”
There was a collectiveaahfrom the audience.
“Would that be the same orphanage where the world’s most notorious child-snatcher stole a baby?”
The audience snickered, but there was a perceptible slip to Stacey’s sugary Hallmark card expression. “Now, Stevie,” she rebuked him, “you know that’s not true. Madonna went through all the proper channels. Why only the other day, she was telling me that—”
“I don’t believe it!” Clayton shouted at the television. “They’re hobnobbing with Madonna these days!”
“Ssh!” Alice said.
“You’re pals with dear old Madge, are you?” Stevie said with an exaggerated look of awe.
“We’ve spoken a few times on the telephone,” Stacey said. “I decided to get in touch with her about the orphanage so we could make a donation.”
“It’s what everybody does, isn’t it?” muttered Clayton. “It’s the first thing that would enter my mind if I had some cash to give away. I’d call Madonna.”
“So you’re getting a right old wodge of cash for your wedding snaps, are you?”
“As Barry explained,” Stacey said with a steely tone that belied the saintly expression on her face, “we won’t be receiving a penny. It will all go to the orphanage. After we lost our—” she paused for unmistakable dramatic effect—“after we lost our baby—” another pause as she and Lucky Bazza exchanged doe-eyed glances—“we just felt this was the right thing to do. Something positive.”
“Oh, shit, here we go.”
“The loss of your baby has been well-documented in the press, and I know how painful that must have been for you, so perhaps it’s better if we don’t—”
“That’s all right, Stevie,” Stacey said hurriedly, as if she were terrified she might be denied the chance to lay out her stall of well-publicized emotions. “We don’t mind talking about it. Especially if it will help other couples who have had to face the trauma of a miscarriage.”
“You’re very brave.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” she said. “But if Clayton is watching this…” she snapped her head round to find the camera and stared directly into it like a real chat-show pro. “I’d just like to tell him that we no longer bear him any malice.”
“Really, Stevie. In my opinion he needs help. You know, professional help. Barry feels the same way. Isn’t that right, Barry?”
The camera zoomed in on Lucky Bazza’s face: his forehead was shiny with perspiration. “Clayton had more than his fair share of problems and bad luck,” he said, “and I want him to know that I wish him nothing but the best.”
The camera stayed on Barry for an unnaturally long time, then slowly panned to the show’s host. “Ladies and gentlemen, I think we should give this extraordinary couple a round of applause and wish them well for the future. And Clayton,” he added when the clapping was over, “if you are listening out there, let me tell you, you look a right slapper in a thong!”
“It wasn’t me in the thong!” Clayton shouted back at the TV.
“That’s all we’ve got time for today, folks,” beamed Stevie. “Catch us tomorrow when I’ll be chatting to a medium who’s regularly in touch with a whole host of stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Elvis. Don’t miss it!”