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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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‘I have a career, Mummy,’ she told her. ‘I’m really not that interested in getting married.’

‘You say that now but believe me it will be a different story in a few years and you need to get one baby under your belt before you start panicking about it.’

‘I’m not entirely sure I want a baby either. I’m not that maternal.’

‘None of us are until we have a child.’ That was rich coming from Mummy, who had never been what they now call ‘hands-on’.

However, about that time Eleanor’s friends were beginning to become attached and the engagement announcements were starting to appear and, after being bridesmaid at various weddings, she was suddenly feeling left out.

She wanted a man of her own.

Henry’s arrival home from some time spent in London was a godsend with her mother, a keen reader of Jane Austen novels, taking on the role of a present-day Mrs Bennet in full matchmaking mode.

It was to be an odd relationship in those early days, too measured to be in any way spontaneous, but on the plus side they made an attractive couple and that pleased Henry. There was no spark between them, sadly, but weighing up the pros and cons he did not fare too badly. He was from a West Country family as well connected as hers, in addition acquiring a substantial sum of money of his own from an aunt who had adored him. He was built in the manner of a rugby player with a grace that belied his size and Eleanor, tall for a girl, needed a man of height.

However, there had to be more to it than looks. Eleanor, aided by her mother, who had a first-class degree in devious enquiries, made sure that he was sound before she allowed their relationship to proceed, for she had determined at an early age that she was not going to go through life counting pennies. Marrying below never worked, her mother said.

If Henry had been lacking in financial terms then she – or
more likely her formidable mother – would have instantly put an end to it before it escalated. In the event, once she decided he was the one for her, she kept him at arm’s length for some considerable time to make sure that his appetite was whetted. She only agreed to full-on lovemaking once there was an agreeably large diamond ring on her finger with the wedding date fixed. She supposed she was old-fashioned in that she had only limited sexual experience prior to Henry and perhaps that was why she had always been faintly disappointed in that aspect of their life, although she never let on to him. Henry had an outrageous overconfidence about his sexual ability; he was robust certainly but it was all about him and his needs and he was lacking in anything resembling gentleness, which she craved. She was never quite sure why he married her for there was a string of girlfriends before her, although perhaps his own mother was tiring of his bachelor ways and had a hand in it. He said he loved her and perhaps he did but his roving eye was a problem from the honeymoon onward.

Love at first sight was a myth perpetrated by romantic novelists and she had never given any credence to it. A successful marriage could be achieved through hard work and a certain give and take, and over the years she had learned how to handle Henry. She was the boss at home and, when it came to domestic matters, he could be persuaded at every turn to agree to what she decided. She had issued the invitation to Paula and Alan without consulting Henry and, as expected, he had agreed to it, albeit with reservations.

He would be proved wrong for she felt in her bones that this holiday would be an unqualified success.

Once they got up in the air, that is, if the wretched driver ever got them there on time. She would complain to the company when they got back. She was tempted to nudge Henry awake but they had a way to go yet and he could be very grumpy if his sleep was unnaturally curtailed.

How could he fall asleep under such conditions as this? Eleanor felt more excited than tired at the prospect of being back in Italy, which was by far her favourite country. They had travelled extensively, done most of the world apart from the Indian continent, which she simply did not fancy, or the cold trips up to the Arctic and so on. They could keep those kind of holidays, thank you very much.

She had slept badly too, childishly excited on the holiday eve, although she could not drop off as easily as Henry, finding it impossible to relax when the driver clearly thought his driving was Grand Prix standard.

Once they were safely on the motorway, he made a brief attempt to engage her in conversation, but she cut him short for at this unearthly hour she was in no mood for it, and he quickly stopped trying. She needed him to concentrate on what he was doing. As a careful driver herself, she had a horror of being a passenger and at times she had to close her eyes as he hurtled along far too fast in the outside lane of the M5.

All she wanted was for him to get them to the airport in one piece on time.

P
AULA
W
ALKER HAD
no trouble fastening her suitcase, but once it was done she worried that the cases looked shabby and she wished she had bought new ones as she had wanted to do, before her son convinced her that it was not a problem. He had popped over to see them last Sunday, pleasing her with the impromptu visit, although he had insisted on taking them out for lunch at some posh hotel when she would rather have cooked him a proper roast dinner instead.

The hotel was out in the country, on Dartmoor, but not the one Nicola worked at. She was on weekend duty which explained why he was alone.

‘She’s fine, thanks,’ Matthew said when she enquired after her. ‘Rushed off her feet of course. They are very busy with wedding receptions. Why does everybody want to get married in June?’

‘Your mum and I got married in June,’ Alan said with a smile. ‘Remember that, sweetheart?’

‘Of course I do.’ She gave him a fond glance before looking at her son, who was watching the pair of them with a silly grin on his face. She hoped to goodness his marriage would prove to be as happy as theirs but it was not the sort of thing you could ask about. She hoped her womanly intuition was
wrong, but she had always harboured a slight doubt about the speed of it all. It wasn’t as if there was a reason for it because Nicola was not pregnant, not that that sort of thing mattered these days. These days, as often as not, the couple’s children were at the wedding.

Things had come a long way and she wasn’t sure whether or not it was for the best, but there it was and you couldn’t change it. Just like there was no way they could go back to being without the Internet or mobile phones. They were here to stay. Even in this restaurant they had been interrupted once or twice by somebody’s phone going off. She kept her thoughts to herself though, because she did not want anybody accusing her of being a grumpy old woman. She was not grumpy, not often, and she certainly was not old.

Matthew had had a few girlfriends over the years since he left university but none of them were particularly serious. It never occurred to her when he brought Nicola home to see them that there was anything special about the girl, or that it would be anything other than casual, petering out eventually as the others had. To her, he had never quite got over losing his first love who had upped and left the area – and him – just before he went off to university. It hit him badly even though it would never have lasted in any case and then shortly afterwards they lost Lucy too so it was a double whammy for Matthew.

Nicola, cool-eyed and a little aloof, was different from the others. Her first impression of the girl was mixed. She tried to like her for obvious reasons but it did not quite work that way. Worryingly, she liked Nicola a lot less than she had liked some of the others but she had no option but to make the best of it. Nicola was a little too brisk for her liking, too superficial with her perfect make-up and immaculate clothes and, right from the off, she had the uncomfortable feeling that she was looking down at her, sometimes annoyingly talking to her as if she did not possess a single brain cell.

‘Give the girl a chance,’ Alan said when she told him about her doubts. ‘I know she’s a bit on the posh side but we shouldn’t hold that against her. She can’t help that, can she?’

No, of course not, but the doubts persisted.

She knew she was guilty of making snap judgements about people, not always getting it right and so she had to hope that on this occasion she was wrong and that her feelings would mellow and that, in due course, certainly before a baby appeared on the scene, she and her daughter-in-law might become friends of a sort.

She knew she had a tendency to overreact and dwell on anything associated with class and she had to remember that Nicola was her son’s choice so she must keep quiet. Even so, she still felt awkward in Nicola’s company and was happier when Matthew came to visit on his own and, on this occasion, this Sunday surprise was a delight. Matthew drove them out to the hotel with his father just about managing to avoid a negative comment about the driving because, up on the moor, you had to watch out for wandering sheep and ponies and cattle. They could appear out of nowhere with a surprising turn of speed at that and the thought of accidentally hitting one of them was something she dare not contemplate.

At the hotel, Matthew slotted the car into a space and they stepped out into the warm sunshine. She had not been here before and it looked lovely, although she wondered if her hastily put-on smart dress was smart enough. But Matthew had whisked them here and she hadn’t had time to think too much about what to wear. They did bar meals but Matthew had booked them into the dining room and she followed him to their table by the window, inadvertently depriving the hovering waiter of pulling out her chair by doing it herself. She did not care for all this palaver as with elaborate movements the waiter took the napkin off the table and placed it reverently on her lap. Opposite her, Alan raised his eyebrows, which
nearly set her off. She had a tendency to giggle at inappropriate moments and this was one of them. She knew she had better not catch his eye again whilst the waiter was in spectacular fussy attendance.

‘This is very nice,’ she said as they waited for their meal to arrive. This hotel didn’t do a carvery, which she preferred, and it was all a bit too starchy for her with an icy atmosphere you could cut with one of the heavy silver knives, and whispered conversations all around, but she determined to make the best of it with Matthew insisting that they had the lot: starter, main and dessert. It was his treat and he wouldn’t even let his father pay for the drinks.

The starters, bits and bobs of this and that, were served on tiny pieces of slate and she saw the look Alan gave them, heard the whisper to Matthew that if he wanted his dinner served on a slate he would have got the ladder up and pinched one from the roof.

‘Go with it, Dad,’ Matthew said. ‘It’s the new presentation and it’s all the rage these days. Wait until you get to Italy. It’ll be Italian food there.’

‘Don’t be cheeky.’ Much more at ease than she was in any situation, Alan pretended to cuff his son, the family resemblance clearly visible. They were a good-looking lot, the Walkers, and for a moment she looked on proudly. ‘I can’t wait to see Venice and Verona. I’ve read up on Venice and I’m awash with information,’ he added with a big grin.

Matthew laughed. ‘Trust you. You’ll know exactly what you want to see, then?’

‘You bet. I have it all worked out. I can’t wait but your mum’s getting in a bit of a state though. Aren’t you, Paula?’

‘Why?’ Matthew looked at her. He was wearing jeans of all things, jeans at this hotel, but with a linen jacket and
open-necked
shirt. It was a young man’s look and at least the jeans were in one piece and not fashionably ripped at the knees.
Next to him, in his grey suit with a neatly knotted tie, Alan looked quite middle-aged. ‘What’s there to get in a state about, Mum?’

She mentioned the sad condition of their luggage then. She had bought some new clothes for the trip, absolute necessities, but she had spent quite a bit, and she couldn’t in all honesty run to a new set of suitcases as well. They had had them forever and although they were rarely used they were cheap to start off with and had not stood up well to the test of time. They looked shabby and she would be ashamed dragging them off the carousel at the airport.

‘Not a problem. You should see the sort of bags well-travelled people have,’ Matthew said. ‘Battered and falling to bits, the more bashed up the better.’

Paula looked at him, puzzled, but then Matthew often puzzled her these days. ‘We’re not well travelled,’ she said stiffly.

‘Mum, you are worrying about nothing. They’re absolutely fine. You can borrow some from us if you like. I’ll mention it to Nicola.’

‘No,’ she said hastily because she did not want Nicola knowing and saying something to Eleanor. ‘We’ll make do with what we have.’

Even so …

 

She sat in the living room of her terraced house in Plymouth waiting for Eddie to arrive to take them to the airport. He had offered, so they had taken him up on it, although Alan thought that the Nightingales might have suggested they share the luxury limousine that was taking them. It wasn’t much of a detour to pick them up on their way from Cornwall if they came via the Tamar Bridge, but she thought that the offer Eleanor made was half-hearted and she hadn’t wanted to put them out any more than they were doing already. After all,
this holiday wasn’t costing them a penny other than the petrol money they would pay Eddie and a few spends, not to mention the clothes-buying, of course, which she was keeping quiet about. She did not tell Alan everything and she suspected he kept a few things from her as well.

Eddie was notoriously late for everything though, and she wished now that they had arranged an alternative means of transport or they could have taken the car and left it parked at the airport, but Alan had said no to that.

Their flight was later in the morning, but they had to be at the airport for check-in hours earlier and it was a bit of a trek up the M5 to Bristol. Even though they had not felt like it, she had made them a cooked breakfast because heaven only knows when they would eat next and it was common knowledge that the aeroplane food was rubbish. She was also not entirely sure that, rubbish or not, she would be able to eat anything up in the air like that. She had been on a plane, once, just a short trip just after she and Alan got married, and she had not liked it particularly but she was keeping her nerves in check because she did not want Her Ladyship to catch on that she was jittery.

The Nightingales had travelled to practically every corner of the globe as Eleanor had been keen to tell her. This little jaunt to Italy was the third holiday so far this year as they had already been on a city break to Paris and a Caribbean cruise.

All right for some.

She tried not to let it get to her because jealousy was an ugly emotion, but meeting Eleanor and Henry for the first time had been an eye-opener. Talk about how the other half live and that kitchen of hers had more gadgets than the Lakeland catalogue. It all seemed effortless for the Nightingales, both of whom had been born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Nicola was the only child at that and maybe that explained it. Nicola was used to getting what she wanted, used to getting
her own way, used to people giving in to her, and Matthew seemed content to let her have what she wanted. She wanted that cottage, for instance, when she knew Matthew had serious doubts about its condition. Roses around the door and ivy and other climbing stuff could hide a multitude of sins and there was the problem of damp with it being so close to the river, not to mention the tricky access up that narrow lane, but there was no way Nicola would be persuaded out of it once she had made up her mind. Matthew had gone along with it, but in Paula’s eyes he should have put his foot down.

‘Have you got the passports?’ she asked Alan for the umpteenth time and he nodded, patting the pocket of his jacket.

Alice, next door, had a key and she would pop in and pick up the post and make sure that the newsagent had got the message and cancelled the papers. She did not want a heap of papers and her magazines lying in the hall when they got back. There was nothing in the fridge and everything was switched off, but it was worrying her a bit because they had never been away for more than a week in their lives, and they were going to be in Italy for just over a fortnight. Fifteen days, that was what it said in the brochure, the brochure she had looked at over and over again ever since Eleanor had given it to her. The hotel looked fabulous, shining in the sunshine with its gardens and its pool and opposite it the lake was so blue.

Alan had been doing some research, poring over books for weeks now, reading up on the area they would be visiting because he liked to do his homework and he loved maps and map-reading. He had pointed out to her various places he wanted to see, but as she reminded him it was up to Eleanor and Henry as they would have to stick together or it would look rude.

 

‘Where has Eddie got to?’ Alan said, opening the front door and peering down the street as if that would make him come
any quicker. The street sloped at a terrifying angle but then most of the streets round here did the same, and Eddie might be finding it hard to find a place to park. She hoped they wouldn’t have to drag the cases up or down the street. Last winter, during an icy spell, it had been like stepping out onto a ski slope. She was terrified she might come a cropper and break her ankle just like a woman at work had done, although she had been in Switzerland at the time, which made it a bit more romantic – although just as painful.

‘I wouldn’t care if I’d been off-piste,’ the girl told them when she got back, hobbling about in plaster, milking it for all it was worth and messing up their rota for weeks because she reckoned she could only stand for ten minutes at a time. ‘But I just fell over in the street when we were on our way to the ski-lifts and I heard it crack. I said to him, I’ve broken my bloody ankle and he just laughed.’

‘Off-piste means a slope where beginners shouldn’t really be,’ somebody else had said, looking at Paula in kindly explanation, when in fact she knew exactly what was meant. People were forever doing that to her. Did she look like she was stupid?

It was early morning, chilly with the door open but dry and light already even at this hour and, according to the weather forecast, the clouds would lift later and, once they got to Italy, it promised to be sunshine all the way. The sun cream was in the bag as well as a sun hat, a cream, big-brimmed straw decorated with pink beading that she had picked up last week. She was not going to tell a soul but she had bought it from the children’s section at Debenhams; it fitted her perfectly so what did it matter if it said 9-10 years on the label? The adult hats had swamped her.

Paula stood up, hitching up her trousers. Travel light, Matthew had said, and she was doing that. These trousers were being a blessed nuisance because, even though she had
taken up the hem – she always had to take up hems – she had misjudged it and they were still a fraction long and would be fraying before long. Cream straight-leg trousers, white tee-shirt and a cotton jacket, all from the mail order catalogue that had a better-than-average petite section, even though it wasn’t quite petite enough. Wedge heels to give her some much-needed height and she was ready for the off. Had been ready for the off for hours now. There had been two visits to the loo already and if Eddie didn’t get here soon she would have to pay a further visit. Excitement always affected her bladder.

BOOK: A Close Connection
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