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Authors: Patricia Fawcett

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

A Close Connection (7 page)

BOOK: A Close Connection
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*

Nicola and Matthew shared a smile and a kiss when they got back and it seemed that both of them had decided on their way home to forget the earlier heated exchange, so it was not mentioned other than a muttered ‘Sorry’ as they kissed.

‘I hope they got there all right,’ Nicola said as they sat down at the kitchen table to eat. ‘Mum has turned off her mobile and says that I must not, under any circumstances, try to contact her unless it’s an emergency.’

‘My mother probably forgot to take hers along,’ Matthew said with a smile. ‘She hates the thing. Dad did say much the same thing, though, about getting in contact. Give us a break, he said, and leave us in peace.’

‘So that’s what we will do.’ Nicola spread a chunky roll with the butter substitute. They only had wine at the weekend and, contrary to her expectations about this evening, Matthew had not relaxed the rule so it was just water and she took a sip, relaxing at last after a busy day. They tried not to talk shop if possible but what else was there to talk about? The subject of Paula was to be avoided at all costs. ‘That wedding I was telling you about is cancelled,’ she said. ‘We only heard today and they’ve asked for a refund on their deposit so although we are not strictly obliged, we’ll probably sort something out as a gesture of goodwill.’

‘Bit short notice, that. What happened?’

‘How should I know? Presumably one or other of them had second thoughts. Can you believe it? How can you let it get as close as that and then abandon it? They seemed such a nice couple too when I showed them round. They held hands the whole time.’ She chewed on her bread thoughtfully. ‘Although now I come to think of it, they were a bit too lovey-dovey if you get my meaning? And I did see him looking at Pamela … you know her, the brunette in reception?’

‘Right. She is quite eye-catching,’ he said, smiling hugely.
‘And she flirts.’

‘Does she? Oh. Don’t tell me she tried flirting with you?’

‘She certainly did. That afternoon when I came to pick you up … you remember when your car was in the garage … she couldn’t have made it clearer that she fancied me if she had been doing a pole dance half-naked.’

‘You are joking?’ she said, watching his face, uncertain because sometimes he was hard to read. ‘I think you flatter yourself, Mr Walker, if you think she was interested in you. She has a very hot boyfriend.’

‘So?’ He shrugged and they laughed.

Nicola liked the banter, also quite liked the fact that other women fancied her husband, as well they might. Later, as Matthew went into the little study to finish off some paperwork, she read a few more pages of her paperback although she was finding it hard to concentrate. The cancellation of the wedding had thrown her a little, jolted her, made her realize that sometimes things did go wrong. Poor girl if she had been jilted: the dress bought, the bridesmaids chomping at the bit, all the guests having to be put off at the very last minute, gifts returned. What a nightmare! Poor bloke if he was the one who had been cast aside. What a blow to his pride. She tried to imagine how she would feel if it had happened to her, but of course it had not. Matthew had been there, in that pretty little church, waiting for her as she walked down the aisle on her father’s arm.

She would never forget the way Matthew turned to look at her, the love in his eyes. It was true. You carried moments like that with you to your grave. Bar the odd argument and surely all couples had them, she reckoned that she was lucky to have him.

She had no fears about Matthew because he loved her and she knew she could trust him. She knew her own dad had had a few flings over the years, things she was not supposed
to know about, and she knew that her mother soldiered on regardless presumably because she loved him but maybe because she could not bear for the world to know.

It would never happen with Matthew.

Like his father Alan, Matthew was a one-woman man.

‘I
DO KNOW THE
significance of Juliet’s balcony,’ Paula said, irritated as Eleanor started to explain it to her as if she was a child. Once a teacher always a damned teacher. ‘It’s from
Romeo and Juliet
and I can even remember what Romeo said.’

Eleanor was sticking to her like glue and she so wanted to shake her off this morning. A coach had deposited them here and they could have opted, like everybody else, for a proper conducted tour of Verona with a guide, but instead Eleanor had insisted that the four of them go it alone. After all, hadn’t she been before, three times, so she knew all there was to know about the place and she found it all a little frustrating being shepherded around in a gang as if they were tourists.

Wasn’t that exactly what they were?

‘Oh. You’ve heard of
Romeo and Juliet
?’ Eleanor seemed surprised that she should have any knowledge at all of Shakespeare but Paula remembered doing the play at school. She was a shy student, but good at remembering lines so she had been persuaded into a biggish role which, funnily enough, she rather enjoyed. She remembered still, with a delicious pride, the way the teacher had taken her aside and whispered that she had acted Shirley Walsh who was playing Juliet off the stage and asked if she was considering a career in acting. It
was stupid to even think of that, although in fact she recalled how good it felt to be up there on stage pretending to be somebody else.

Her mother was surprised when her English teacher had repeated the words at the following open evening but, although she had not said anything to the teacher, she had not offered much in the way of encouragement on the way home. A single mother, she had worked her fingers to the bone to do the best for her daughter – as she was so fond of saying – but she had no ambition other than to keep their heads above water and to be able to afford little treats from time to time. She couldn’t wait for Paula to leave school and get a job.

‘That teacher doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Who do we know who’s gone to acting school? She’s no right to be putting daft ideas in your head,’ was the best she could manage when Paula dared to mention the acting. Of course it was just a dream and remained a dream. Once, though, she read an article about a famous actress who revealed that she was pitifully shy in real life but threw off her shyness as soon as she stepped onto the stage into whatever role she might be playing.

If only she could do that too, because sometimes she was frustrated by the shyness that still overtook her – usually at the wrong moment. For instance, she wanted desperately to say to Eleanor, ‘Shut up, you old bat, and stop patronizing me,’ but of course she never would, not in a million years. As for knowing about
Romeo and Juliet
, she thought she might still be able to recite the entire part of Juliet’s nurse given the appropriate cue. So, how dare Eleanor make the assumption that she had never heard of the play?

‘Sorry.’ Eleanor smiled, blissfully unaware of how much she was offended. ‘I thought you might not know much about Shakespeare.’

‘Well, I do.’ Paula sighed, waving her information sheet with
the little map of Verona in front of her face like a fan. Having lost the men, the two of them had been wandering around the labyrinth of old streets for ever and it was so hot and she felt a bit sick as the strong scent of the sun cream drifted up to her nose. It was good of course that it was sunny, and she knew she ought not to complain, heaven forbid, but it was too hot in the middle of the day to be traipsing around the streets and what she needed now was a cooling drink. She had discarded her hat because it was making her hair feel too sticky against her neck, but there was no shade just here and she could feel the powerful heat of the sun. She should watch it or her brain might get frazzled and she needed to keep it sharp when she was dealing with Eleanor.

‘I love it here,’ Eleanor said. ‘I love the people. Have you noticed how they parade about in the evening wearing their best clothes and strutting their stuff?’

‘They look very smart,’ Paula admitted, thinking that the poor youngsters at home could not compete with the easy style of the young people here.

‘It’s called
la passeggiata
, a sort of showing-off to each other. At least it’s better than throwing up in the gutter, which our youngsters seem to do at home. It’s got worse or are we getting old, Paula? I never got drunk when I was young, not deliberately. Did you?’

‘No I didn’t. I don’t much like drinking although we’ve had some lovely wine here.’

‘All Italian, you notice. They don’t do French or Australian wines. I love that.’ Eleanor laughed. ‘Do you fancy a drink? Non-alcoholic of course.’

‘I’d love one and a sit-down for a while. My feet are killing me. Where have the men got to?’

‘I have no idea.’ Eleanor glanced around and then shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter. They know where to pick up the coach. Let’s get ourselves a lemonade. Come on.’

She set off, a vision in a flowing ankle-length white cotton dress, a silky pink scarf casually draped around her neck, various items of silver jewellery hanging from her ears and around her wrist. Unlike Paula, she was wearing flats, a much more sensible choice for a walking tour. Her hair was in a pigtail today, a statement style, a heavy solitary twist secured with a pink ribbon. Only somebody with as much confidence as Eleanor could get away, at her age, with a style like that. Catching a glimpse of the two of them in a shop window, Paula thought her own ensemble had pretty much hit the mark too, although she wished now that she had opted for more comfortable shoes. Trying to up her height so that she was closer to eye level with Eleanor was proving a challenge.

They found a café with outside seating and Eleanor ordered them soft drinks from the waiter – in Italian – and they settled themselves under the shade of the parasol and watched the world go by. Various languages jostled for attention; Italian, the harsher Germanic sounds, the American drawl, even some English voices – complaining, unfortunately – drifted their way.

‘I adore Verona,’ Eleanor said. ‘Keep it to yourself, but they say that Shakespeare never visited, in fact. But you have to admit that the balcony is something special even if it’s all in our imagination that it was the actual balcony.’

Paula looked at her, puzzled. It was all pure fiction.

‘I hope I haven’t spoilt it for you. You did know that balcony we’ve just seen was built sometime in the thirties?’

Paula didn’t know that, but who cares? She had just watched two actors re-enacting the little scene at the balcony and it was magical. Completely oblivious, looking gorgeous as in the way of the Italian youth, several pairs of young lovers had clustered all around them, arms entwined, gazing at each other; and it reminded Paula of her youth, bringing with it of course that sadness for times long gone.

As if they were thinking the same thing, they both sighed deeply.

‘This is lovely, thank you,’ Paula said, suddenly aware that she had never thanked her properly for all this. They had offered to pay something but Eleanor had seemed affronted at the very idea of that, although Alan took some persuading because he did not want to be in her debt.

They might not be in the same league as Henry and Eleanor’s business, but Alan was doing OK because people still needed to learn to drive whatever the economic climate. He had a good reputation as an instructor but the prices had been pegged for a while now and they were feeling the pinch. They were cautious with money and although she often accused Alan of being tight, she was also built in that mould and did not like to spend their hard-earned money foolishly. They had a nice amount saved and she took pleasure in adding a little to it each month, although what the hell they were saving up for she had no idea because there was only Matthew to leave it to and he was in a good job earning a good salary so he did not need it. Still, she liked to dwell occasionally on the savings which she knew would see them through not only a rainy day, but a monsoon. ‘We appreciate it, Eleanor,’ she added, determined, though, that they would reciprocate in some way at a later date. The last thing she wanted was for Nicola’s mother to think they were spongers. ‘It is very kind of you.’

‘Not at all. Henry’s rolling in it. I help out but he does the bulk of the work, the boring nitty-gritty stuff. I asked you to come because we need some time together to get to know each other. After all, one day we will share a grandchild, won’t we? I can hardly wait, although if I know my daughter it’s not going to happen for a while yet.’

Paula nodded, half-listening to the chat from the nearby table. It was pleasant in the shade under the parasol and the little blocks of ice jostled against each other in her glass as
she sipped the cool liquid. Eleanor had ordered ice-cream as well, which she was quickly realizing was nothing like the ice-cream back home. Italian ice-cream was something else. ‘I don’t think Matthew’s in a hurry to have children either,’ she said. ‘Not that he’s said anything but it’s just the impression I get.’

‘No, we must be patient,’ Eleanor agreed. ‘They don’t seem in a rush to have children these days. Nicola is doing very well at the hotel and I know she wants to build a career in hospitality management, there or somewhere else. They won’t move far, though, I can assure you of that. She loves this area.’

‘Matthew did say he might move once upon a time, but now that he’s married I think he will think twice about it. When two of you have got to find new jobs it isn’t as easy, is it?’

‘Absolutely not. Fortunately we have never had that problem. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching but when Henry’s business expanded into Europe, my knowledge of languages was really helpful, so I started to go with him on his trips and I decided at that point to give up the teaching.’ She smiled a little. ‘It was becoming a little too stressful, Paula. I was teaching older children and these days some of them are seventeen going on thirty-five and they think they know it all already.’

‘Matthew says you travel to France a lot.’

‘Yes, we do. We pick up wonderful stuff from the open markets and house sales in France, sometimes things with a client specifically in mind. We get things for a bargain price and then sell them on. One person’s tat is precious to another person and it’s just a question of matching up items with the right people. The French have always been so stylish and their furniture has that edge. It’s very exciting.’

‘It sounds it.’ Paula smiled, wondering if Eleanor expected her to try to compete with that. As if she could, for how on earth could her job working in a card shop compete, and although people thought Alan’s job was a doddle, it most
certainly was not. You had to have patience, a lot of it, to cope with what he had to put up with. Some of these wouldbe drivers had a death wish from the word go and one dear lady, a long-time pupil, insisted on continuing with her weekly lessons when the chances of her ever acquiring a licence were nil. After more than a hundred lessons, Alan had broken the news to her, being very straight with her and more or less saying he didn’t want to take her money and give her false hope but she rejected that, saying it was her money and she could do what she wanted with it.

It did cross Paula’s mind that the lady was madly in love with him and cherished the moments she spent with him, so perhaps she was deliberately fluffing the driving so that she could continue to see him on a weekly basis. She had told Alan and he laughed and said what on earth would she see in him?That’s what she loved most about her husband. He had no idea how attractive he was to the ladies. She had seen the look Eleanor shot his way and it amused her and did not worry her for she could never imagine Her Ladyship settling for a man like Alan in a million years. Unless of course she fancied what might be thought of in her circles as ‘a bit of rough’.

She would be wrong about that. Alan was a lot of things but he was not that. He was a diamond in the dust, a very intelligent man but he had never gained his full potential, giving up the chance of university to go straight into work. He did not start off as a driving instructor but he had never been out of work since leaving school and, thirsty for knowledge, had gained a degree from the Open University a few years ago, although he preferred not to tell people about that.

Paula excused herself from the outside table of the café in Verona and with some trepidation went to the Ladies. You never knew in these places whether it was going to be ultra-smart and fully tiled with mystifying fancy taps or one of the old-fashioned hole-in-the-floor affairs which she would never
in a million years get used to. Thank God, it was the former and she brushed her hair and redid her lipstick before returning to the table where Eleanor was settling the bill, finishing off her conversation with the waiter and leaving what must be a lavish tip because the chap was all smiles as they left.

 

Next day, Paula was sunning herself at the poolside when Eleanor appeared. She hid a sigh because, although the trip out to Verona had been great, it had not been a total success because she could not escape Eleanor’s clutches. They had not caught up with the men until they picked up the coach but it seemed the two gents had enjoyed themselves finding a nice restaurant to have lunch before picking up some English newspapers – yesterday’s – and relaxing in a shady spot by the Arena.

Today was a free day with no planned excursions and it was something of a relief.

‘I thought you would be here,’ Eleanor said, arranging herself on the sun bed beside her. ‘Henry’s taken the boat across to Sirmione but I’ve seen it before and I wanted a breather. Where’s Alan?’

‘He’s taken a stroll into town to see if he can find a museum or something,’ Paula said, looking at Eleanor but keeping her sunglasses on so that she could avoid direct eye contact. She noticed, could not fail to notice, the smooth, golden-tanned legs nor the elegance of Eleanor’s swimwear; a flowing beach cover-up with just a tantalizing glimpse beneath of a white bikini. She was wearing a swimsuit herself, a structured black one-piece from M&S, her bikini days long gone. ‘I’m just enjoying the sunshine,’ she added unnecessarily. ‘Isn’t it gorgeous?’

BOOK: A Close Connection
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