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Authors: Patricia Fawcett

Tags: #Chick-Lit, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Marriage, #Relationships, #Sagas, #Women's Fiction

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BOOK: A Close Connection
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‘You poor things,’ she said, her hand so close to his that it very nearly moved of its own accord to touch and offer support. Perhaps he sensed as much, for she saw him look down at her hand and move his away just as her husband appeared.

‘Bloody chaotic, it’s like a rugby scrum at that bar even at those prices,’ Henry said cheerfully, interrupting them just when there had been a window of opportunity for her to find out more from Alan. Blissfully unaware of the tension in the air, a tension that Eleanor was acutely aware of, one that you could pluck like a string, Henry handed them their drinks. ‘Are you sure she doesn’t feel up to joining us, Al?’

‘Paula is resting,’ Eleanor told him, trying to catch his eye so that she could give him the nod that he was to drop the subject. ‘What did you think of Verona, Alan? Henry tells me you did some research about it beforehand.’

‘I did. I knew a bit about it but I needed to know more. It’s always been my ambition to go to the opera at the Arena.’

‘Don’t tell me you’re into opera?’ Henry asked. ‘You sly bugger.’

‘I do a spot of singing,’ Alan said, the surprise remark dropping into the conversation like a thud. ‘I used to be in a choir but it got too difficult finding time to get along to the practice sessions. I miss it, though. You should try it. There’s nothing quite like singing to lift the spirit.’

‘Is there no end to this man’s talents?’ Henry asked after a moment. ‘You kept that quiet, Al. I didn’t know we had a Pavarotti in our midst.’

Alan grinned, unperturbed. ‘Not quite. You should hear me. But I would like to see the opera, especially performed at the Arena. It must be quite a spectacle. There’s always something special about open-air theatre, isn’t there?’

‘Oh yes, we love the Minack Theatre over in Cornwall, don’t we, Henry?’

‘It’s all right,’ he said without enthusiasm. ‘Sitting on rocks in the pouring rain is not my idea of a good night, though.’

‘That was just on one occasion. When the sun shines, it’s magical.’ Eleanor shot her husband a despairing glance. ‘If only I’d known you were interested in opera, Alan. It’s not going to be easy to get good tickets now, not at this late stage but we could try if you like for later in the week.’

‘No, that’s fine. I’m not too keen on the opera that’s on just now. Perhaps another time. I’m hoping I will persuade Paula to come back here, maybe next year. Isn’t opera your thing then, Henry?’

‘Hell, no. All that screeching gets on my nerves. I don’t mind a decent tenor but those bloody sopranos set my teeth on edge.’

‘Henry has no musical appreciation whatsoever.’ Eleanor cast an annoyed look his way. The fact that Alan sang had rather floored her. She would love to hear him sing but not just now. ‘I adore opera of course and I do persuade him to go up to London occasionally.’

‘You only do it to be seen, my darling, and to have an excuse to stay in a smart hotel and buy a new frock,’ Henry said with a short laugh that infuriated her.

‘I do not,’ she retorted but not before she had seen Alan’s scarcely concealed smile. Did the two of them discuss their wives when they were together? She hoped not for Henry was not known for his discretion. She knew Henry thought her cold sexually and she hoped to God he had not said as much to Alan. It suddenly mattered that Alan should not get that impression.

She finished her drink and stood up, annoyed with her husband for that ‘opera’ remark and giving Alan a very warm glance just so Henry would notice. Henry might be a little taller and broader than the other man but there was something about Alan that, just at this very moment, made Henry
pale into insignificance. ‘Shall we take our drinks through?’

She caught the return glance Alan gave her before spinning round on her heels and making a beeline for the restaurant. She knew she looked her best this evening and she knew, without a word being said, that Alan had noticed. It was a long time since another man had paid her any attention, not in that way, and it felt good, even if it would never amount to anything, for if ever a man was happily married, it was Alan.

If there was a little swagger in her movement, a little feminine hip swaying, then so be it. She was hotly aware of that glance and knew exactly what it meant. It was a long time since she had flirted and it was rather fun and it certainly wasn’t her fault if Paula was being a wet blanket this evening – headache indeed!

As to Henry … if he thought he was going to make love to her later tonight, he could think again.

 

After dinner, they ended up on the hotel terrace where a pianist was playing background music. It was a balmy evening, the heat of the day lingering still, although Eleanor was glad of the feather-light shawl draped around her shoulders.

‘Do you need to get back to your room to check on Paula?’ she asked Alan. ‘It’s fine if you want to do that. We don’t mind, do we, Henry?’

‘She’ll be asleep by now,’ Alan said. ‘She’s not a night bird. She sometimes goes off to bed by ten at home.’

‘Good God, does she? It’s usually midnight for us, isn’t it, darling?’ Henry said. ‘And these days I can’t bloody get off to sleep as often as not and no …’ He stole a glance at Eleanor. ‘I am not starting on sleeping pills. That is the kiss of death. Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to the little boys’ room and if you like I’ll order us some of their special coffees on the way.’

‘That would be lovely. Thank you.’ Eleanor watched as he disappeared.

Alone with Alan it felt awkward suddenly.

‘You look nice tonight,’ he said at last. ‘But then you always do.’

‘Thank you.’ It was not exactly a fulsome compliment but it warmed her for unlike Henry, this man meant it. It also surprised her for she knew it was not something he would have said had his wife been present.

‘Paula’s enjoying it,’ he said and there was something in his voice that concerned her. ‘I’ve been trying to get her to do this sort of thing for years but she’s always been so against it. It’s as if she’s frightened of enjoying herself.’

‘I can understand it. Not everyone enjoys travelling and she doesn’t like flying much so it can be a bit of an ordeal.’

‘Are you and Henry OK?’

‘Yes, of course. What on earth do you mean?’ She looked at him, startled, for it was a strange question.

‘Sorry. I just wondered.’

‘He’s not the easiest person but we get on well enough.’

‘How long have you been married?’

‘Just over thirty years.’

‘Same for us although it’s a few years more. It’s a life sentence when you think about it.’

‘A happy one, I hope?’ she said, looking at him and seeing a sudden wariness cross his face. ‘You two seem very content together.’

‘Do we? It’s not been as smooth as you might think. Losing Lucy was a big thing, you know, and there was a time shortly afterwards when we talked about separating.’

‘Did you?’ She was genuinely astonished.

‘It was the grief. It started to annoy me that she couldn’t get to grips with it. She was in tears for weeks, no let up at all and it was getting to be impossible. I tried to be patient but I couldn’t get through to her and it was a very difficult time. To me she was being selfish thinking only of herself and not me.
She never asked once how I was coping with it. She just left me to get on with it. It didn’t seem to occur to her that I was almost out of my mind with grief.’

‘You’ve dealt with it in different ways,’ she told him. ‘When something as terrible as that happens you are on your own. You can help each other through it but I’ve seen a lot of relationships disintegrate after a trauma so you’ve done well to hold it together.’

‘Thanks.’ To her surprise he reached across the table and took her hand. ‘I can talk to you, Eleanor, and that’s a surprise because when I first met you I thought, this woman is going to be such hard work.’

‘Did you really?’ She felt the pressure of his hand, astonished that he had done this, and surely he held it a fraction longer than he ought, holding her gaze at that so that she felt quite hot and bothered as she caught sight of Henry heading back.

Alan had his back to him but there must have been something in her look that made him swiftly let go of her hand – although not before Henry had seen it.

She lay awake for what seemed hours that night thinking about it and the guilty look on Alan’s face as Henry took a seat beside them.

You only looked guilty if you had something to hide.

P
AULA CARRIED A
small photograph of Lucy around with her, tucked into a pocket in her purse. Every time she opened the purse, it was a comfort to know that Lucy was there. Alan did not know about it so far as she knew, because he was not in the habit of going into her purse.

Of course she did not need a photograph because Lucy’s face was deposited in her memory in a safe-box that she could open any time she wanted. More often than not, though, she thought of her daughter at a particular age, round about five years old when she had started school, her early promise of being a bright little girl fully realized.

There was a five-year gap between her children. It had not been their intention to have a gap as large as that but it was the way it happened and it worked well because when Matthew started school, she did not miss him as much as she might have as there was baby Lucy to care for. Lucy was premature but a good weight at just under six pounds and, from the beginning with her tiny hands and feet, she was destined to be just like Paula, challenged in height terms, with the same light-coloured hair which hairdressers always kindly described as fine when they clearly meant thin.

Lucy was the much-beloved baby girl but they tried not to
spoil her and Matthew was the big brother who adored her. There were spats of course as they grew older and she made fun of his girlfriends, embarrassing him and laughing about it, but it was all good-natured stuff. But when he went off to university, it was Lucy who probably missed him the most. She was thirteen at the time, still a lot smaller than all her schoolfriends but a popular, bright girl as, a little later than most of them, she started the process of maturing into a young woman.

‘It’s not the same,’ she grumbled to her mother, ‘with no Matty around.’

She was the only person who called him that. She would have gone far, would have followed her brother to university if she had anything to do with it. Alan, deprived of that opportunity, also had been dead keen on his children doing that. Nobody was more delighted than Alan when Matthew got his place because it was something he had been denied and to get such a fantastic offer as a place at Oxford had meant Alan had gone round for weeks bragging about it.

And so had she. They told his granddad the news but there was never a proper acknowledgement from him, not even a congratulations card, which would not have hurt him.

Paula, try as she would, had never got on with Thomas Walker.

‘So you are the girlfriend?’ he said when Alan first introduced her to him. ‘There’s not much of you, is there?’

She could tell from his expression that he did not think much of her and that, coupled with the anxiety of the occasion, made her more tongue-tied than usual although Alan had immediately taken hold of her hand and given it an encouraging squeeze. Alan’s mother, frail even then, had welcomed her cautiously, but deliberately or not there had never been the opportunity to chat woman to woman as it were, so whatever her inner thoughts might be were never revealed.

It was his father’s wish that Alan went into the family business, which was concerned with building and supplying specialized equipment to the maritime industry. It was a medium-sized business, moderately successful and the plan was that eventually Alan would take it over. But that was not to Alan’s taste and the engineering industry was not something that fuelled his interest.

Alan’s father was a bully, his mother a cowed little woman who did as she was told, and with the financial rug well and truly pulled from under his feet and no other means of supporting himself other than landing himself in enormous debt, Alan made the difficult decision not to accept the place he was offered. It was not Oxford but a good red-brick university and the course in European history promised to be fascinating.

‘What the hell use is history?’ his father had said, laughing at him. ‘It’s what’s happening now that matters, not what people got up to God knows how many years ago. Anyway, I’ve not worked my socks off to get this business up and running to have my only son turn his nose up at it. You need to get a grip on reality, son. We can’t all be astronauts.’

It was all very well being stubborn and Paula understood because Thomas Walker, Alan’s dad, was an awkward individual who obviously had been as lukewarm about her as she was about him. Sometimes she wished Alan had swallowed his stupid pride and gone into the business, because from all accounts it was booming, his dad still nominally at the helm although there was a manager now who ran things. Thomas was known locally within the business community, admired for his tenacity, if not entirely liked, brusque and offensive to the ladies as he often was – it was something of a miracle that he had not been done for sexual harassment – and he had a finger in several business pies these days, still working a bit even in his late seventies. They heard on the grapevine that he had diversified and moved into property-developing a decade
ago, and now owned a few houses which he let out to students. It was no secret and somehow or other Thomas made sure that they were drip-fed the information with I-told-you-so high on his agenda.

With his long-suffering mother long gone, Thomas was Alan’s only living relative, but even though the old man only lived over in Torquay, they rarely visited or spoke. Thomas’s annoyance at his son’s refusal to go into the business had festered and simmered and eventually reached boiling point, culminating in a huge row shortly after she and Alan got married. His ‘You can do a lot better than her’ had infuriated Alan. Paula, hating family rifts, had tried to smooth things over and for a while there had been an uneasy truce when the children were small and they had paid Granddad occasional visits. He paid them scant attention and her efforts were doomed to fail and the visits became less frequent and eventually, with no effort coming from him, they petered out. It was the last straw when there was no acknowledgement from Thomas when Lucy died or when Matthew married.

She could just about turn a blind eye to his grandfather not coming to his grandson’s wedding but not coming to Lucy’s funeral was non-negotiable and she would never forgive him that.

She would shed no tears when Thomas Walker popped off.

 

Alone in the hotel room, lying on the bed propped up by a mountain of pillows, Paula was feeling a little better as her headache eased. She simply could not have faced the palaver of dinner this evening with Eleanor still insisting on speaking Italian, which made for an uneasy situation with their waiter, who would have much preferred to conduct the conversation in his charmingly accented English.

There had been no communication from Matthew or Nicola, but since she and Alan had requested a news blackout then she
could not blame them for the silence.

All in all, the holiday was going well. She had caught something of Eleanor’s enthusiasm for Italy and its people and the boat trips across and up the lake were introducing them to the many different little resorts dotted round the lake. There was not a lot of contact with the other people in the tour group but that was because the four of them were so obviously a little unit, and because Eleanor was a bit off-putting nobody had dared butt in. Amongst the group, though, Eleanor was definitely the one who stood out with her easy elegance and Paula had not failed to notice the looks other women cast her, reading their minds and knowing they were asking themselves how the hell she did it and, more to the point, what she had spent in order to achieve it.

So long as she pretty much agreed with Eleanor, it was all right. After all, the woman could not help it if she happened to be tall and slim with lustrous hair, something Paula yearned to have. Alan loved her as she was, and it was silly to be dissatisfied with yourself when there were others far worse off than you, but it was doubly annoying when you tried your very best to look your best and didn’t always manage it and yet somebody like Eleanor always got it right. She was the sort who would look enchanting wearing a paper bag.

She had not yet got round to telling Alan that she had been offered a promotion at work to shop manager. It had been on the cards in the card shop for some time, because she was by far the longest-serving member of the team and knew the ins and outs of the job, despairing sometimes of the way the junior staff treated customers and not afraid of speaking out when that happened.

The promotion would mean a pay rise, which would be welcome, but it also involved more responsibility and that was why she was hesitating about accepting it. She knew both Alan and Matthew would tell her to go for it but she had seen what
additional responsibility and the related stress did to people and that was why she was considering it carefully before she accepted. She was not the ambitious sort, more than content to just do the job as well as she could, and she knew that with the promotion would come meetings with the other managers in the group and the constant worry that her shop was underperforming and slipping in the company sales charts.

Although she was flattered to have been asked, she was not going to do it. In fact, she wouldn’t even mention it to Alan, for what was the point? What he didn’t know he couldn’t worry about. Yes, the extra money would be nice but it wasn’t worth making herself ill.

Getting off the bed, she padded barefoot across to the window. There was nobody in the pool and the blue water shimmered and glinted, moving restlessly as the sun lowered in the sky. There were streaks of pink there, so yet another fine day was promised for tomorrow.

She wondered what was happening back home and hoped Alice had not lost the key and was remembering to move the post from behind the door. Alice was scatty and forgetful and for a moment, she wondered if she should give her a quick call to remind her.

Forget it.

She pushed the anxious thought from her mind.

She was hungry now, but she could not turn up for dinner late so she would have to stay hungry. Alan had offered to stay with her, forego his dinner but she wouldn’t hear of it. ‘Don’t let her get to you,’ she had said, meaning Eleanor. ‘Whatever she says, it’s just water off a duck’s back.’

‘Don’t worry. I can handle her,’ he told her with a smile. ‘She’s a softie underneath.’

Now, why did she find that remark so disturbing?

 

Back home, Alice next door picked up the mail from Paula’s
mat and took the letters through to the table in the kitchen. There were a few circulars, some junk mail but amongst them a serious-looking letter in a stiff white envelope, which she placed to one side with the other proper letters so that Paula would not throw them out by mistake.

She was not being nosey, not really, but she did notice that this newest letter was from a solicitor because the address was on the back.

She hoped it was not bad news.

BOOK: A Close Connection
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