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Authors: Patricia Fawcett

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

A Close Connection (8 page)

BOOK: A Close Connection
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‘It certainly is. If only we had weather like this in Cornwall, although when it is like this, it is absolutely beautiful on the coast. May I join you?’

Paula nodded, feeling a confession coming on. She had felt
for some days that Eleanor wanted to talk to her about something but could not quite bring herself to do it.

‘You needn’t answer this if you don’t want to …’

Ah.

‘But Matthew did mention something about his sister and I wondered if you might like to tell me about it. I have some experience in counselling and I’m told I am a good listener,’ she added with a little laugh.

There was a short silence as time stilled. Suddenly it was as if the two of them were inside a bubble with outside sounds diminished. Paula watched guests swimming and playing around in the cool blue waters of the pool, the Italian guests parading round as only they could do, but in a heartbeat she was back to that awful day, that awful October day when, to put no finer point on it, her whole world fell apart. In the blink of an eye, her life changed. They gave it a name which made it real but it didn’t matter what they called it, it could have been bubonic plague for all she cared for it had the same effect.

‘I’m sorry.’ She roused herself with an effort, the shouts and splashes poking through her bubble and bursting it abruptly. ‘If you don’t mind, I really don’t want to talk about it just now.’

‘Of course. I’m sorry to have brought it up,’ Eleanor said stiffly. ‘But it really does no good to bottle things up. It’s just that sometimes it helps to talk about things to a friend.’

A friend?

Were they friends? Their relationship was complicated and only brought about because they had become related – sort of – and the truth was that they would never have come across each other if Matthew had not married Nicola. Paula was still uncertain about how she felt about Nicola, the girl whom Matthew loved. She was not at ease yet with her daughter-in-law and she knew the feeling was reciprocated. It was taking time and she had not yet given up hope that they might eventually become friends.

What would Lucy make of her? Lucy, despite her young age, had been great at seeing through people and Paula had placed a lot of faith in what her daughter thought. Paula had not liked Chrissie much but then nor had she.

‘What does Matty see in her?’ Lucy had asked, her teenage wisdom shining through and saying what Paula had long been thinking. ‘She’s so needy. Clinging onto him like she does. She’s like a barnacle on a boat.’

‘Don’t you dare say anything!’

‘As if I would. Honestly, Mum, you treat me like a
child
.’

She wished Lucy was here now and she could ask her if she liked Nicola. ‘What’s her mum like?’ Lucy would have asked.

One word sprang to mind. Shallow.

And there it was. Like mother, like daughter. Already Nicola was showing a few worrying tendencies to think and act like her mother.

God help Matthew.

I
T WAS SOME
time after they met before Matthew introduced Nicola to his parents. It had been a few months since that evening at the hotel and it was all ticking along nicely. There had been some dinners together, the theatre, a few trips out and although they kissed after the first date, she wanted to wait a while before going the whole hog with him. So, she kept him at arm’s length until neither of them could stand it any longer, but his flat was little more than a hovel – albeit neat and tidy – and at that time she was back to living at home so meeting there was out of the question.

It felt furtive and ultimately unsatisfactory.

After graduating from university with a job in the hotel industry already lined up, Nicola got a flat-share in Barnstaple with a girlfriend but although it worked for a few years, it had to come to an end eventually and did so when the girlfriend found a man and moved out. She could not afford the place on her own and did not want to go through the hassle of trying to find some other girl to share with. Although there was the option of staff accommodation at the hotel, it was just one poky little room up in the eaves – the servants’ quarters, no less and a bit reminiscent of student digs – so although moving back home was a dreadful thing to do, it did make sense.
Financially she could save some money and she had several rooms at home to call her own, and in addition, her laundry was done and her meals were cooked for her.

With several years experience under her belt, she moved jobs at that point to her current hotel, which was so very different from the modern ‘safe but dull’ one she had worked at before. Nethersley Hall tucked away in its secret valley – or so the brochure claimed – was a one-off, old and grand retaining much of its original style, although not at the expense of up-to-the-minute bathrooms with decent showers and so on. There were spectacular views of the Devon countryside from all the guest windows and with its antique furniture and surplus of chintz, it had a comfortable old-fashioned feel. The chef was trained in London and Paris so the cream teas they served took on a special quality.

It was not a job to be missed, a heaven-sent opportunity but it made for a longish commute from her parents’ home in Cornwall. However, as she loved to drive her brand new little car – a twenty-fifth birthday present from her father – it was not a huge problem. Her mother was thrilled to have her home, her father less so, but she knew in her heart that even though she had her own space at home, things had changed. She had grown up and she objected to her mother treating her as if she was the teenager she had been before she went off to university, complaining about the state of her room, would you believe?

After a few months of sleeping together whenever they could, she and Matthew had already talked about getting somewhere together, renting a bigger place, but it was a big commitment moving in with a man and she was less sure than he was about the wisdom of it. She needed a ring on her finger first so for the moment she was holding back, but when Matthew said he wanted to introduce her to his parents she knew then that this was getting serious. And when the
M-word was finally mentioned, it came as a surprise but a pleasant one for after all they were both well established in their careers and approaching thirty seemed as good an age as any to consider marriage.

Although Matthew had told her about his parents, not holding back from saying what they did, which immediately put them in a particular financial bracket in her head, the terraced house in the street in Plymouth had been a bit of a shock.

The area was close to the city, walking distance, and not the best district, although she liked the pastel colours of the little houses and the fact that the sea and the sound of seagulls were just around the corner. She could cope with it for she did not think of herself as a snob. She had been privately educated and counted a lot of snobs amongst her schoolfriends but she was certainly not one of them. At university she had mingled with all sorts of people, some of them from northern comprehensives, although in the end when it became obvious that attitudes you were born with were bloody hard to shift, she had drifted towards people from similar backgrounds because it was easier.

When Matthew said the name of the street where his parents lived, and not knowing the city that well, she had pictured a row of newish semi-detached properties with little front gardens and wrought-iron gates. So, seeing the little steep cobbled street with the houses directly off for the very first time, the row of ugly brown bins standing all the way along the street because it was bin day, she just about stopped herself from making a negative comment.

Matthew had driven her round and they sat outside the house a moment holding hands.

‘I’m feeling a bit nervous,’ she told him. ‘And I can’t think why. I was introduced to the Queen at university and I didn’t feel nervous then.’

‘Were you? You never said. Why was that?’

‘She opened a new wing and a couple of the students were chosen to be presented and I was one of them. I had to learn to curtsey.’ She smiled. ‘She was lovely. A tiny lady in pink. Totally in pink. She has the loveliest smile.’

‘Oh. That’s something to talk about with Mum. She’ll be very impressed. They are looking forward to meeting you,’ he said.

‘Are they? Christ, I wish I could say the same.’

‘Don’t say Christ when you’re with them. It’s not that they’re religious or anything but Dad doesn’t swear and I’ve never heard Mum say anything stronger than damn.’

She laughed. ‘Bloody hell, Matthew, you mean I can’t say fuck in front of them.’

He laughed too. ‘No way. Mum would faint on the spot.’

‘I shall be on my best behaviour, then.’

‘Promise?’

She dropped the comedy. ‘Yes, I promise. I wouldn’t dream of embarrassing you, babe. I shall be Little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes.’

‘Thanks. Now, let’s fill you in. Mum will bring out the nibbles and offer you a glass of wine which she will have bought specially for you. And she will have been cleaning the house from top to bottom all day long.’

‘Oh no, I hope not. I can’t bear fuss.’

‘She’ll like you,’ he said, squeezing her hand. ‘Are you ready? Come on, let’s get it over with.’

At the time she had not taken Matthew to her home, to meet her parents, because she knew the fuss her mother would make and she did not want to subject him to that, not yet, not when they had not long met. Although she had strong feelings already for him, although she had accepted his proposal – sort of – she was not absolutely one hundred per cent sure that it was a goer, that this was finally it. She did
not know Matthew that well so it was all to do with shallow stuff, like his being so handsome that other women looked at him in
that
way when she was with him and it made her feel marvellous.

‘He’s mine, all mine,’ she wanted to say. ‘So back off.’

She was hesitating while there was still time to back out without it being a major deal. It was all very well for her mother to talk, but things were different then, more black and white, and nowadays the colours were smudged and, perhaps because they jumped into bed more quickly than maybe her mother and certainly her grandmother’s generation did, then moving on to the next step – that awful word ‘commitment’ – was harder than ever.

 

‘Pleased to meet you, Nicola,’ Paula Walker said at their first meeting in the narrow hall of the house. She had obviously had her hair done that day, for it looked incredibly stiff in its short style. She held out her hand and Nicola grasped it, surprised at how little she was, even smaller than the Queen, taking in at a glance the effort the woman had gone to, on a limited budget obviously, to make the little house homely. There was an aroma of baking bread and coffee as if she had the house up for sale and Nicola was a potential buyer.

‘Hello Paula. It’s nice to meet you too.’

She thrust the flowers at her, several bunches of daffodils because it was spring, and Paula blushed and told her she shouldn’t have, before scurrying off to find a vase, leaving Nicola to meet Matthew’s dad, who had come out of the room they called the lounge to greet her. Shaking his hand, a warm full grip, she saw straight off something of Matthew in the older man. The same easy demeanour, he being not the least concerned that she was perhaps a little different from the other girls Matthew might have brought home; whereas Paula’s anxious fluttering and wide-eyed awe as if she was of royal
blood was an irritation that was instant and would prove to be constant.

The second time she visited Matthew’s parents, a few months on with the relationship now firmly established and a diamond ring on her finger, Paula did not disappoint and produced the family photograph albums, proudly showing her pictures of Matthew when he was little; an energetic bright-looking child with that same unruly hair and wide smile. As Paula turned the pages, Matthew grew older, school photos galore and then there he was, much more recognizable as a teenager, with a red-haired girl by his side, his arm round her, looking very happy.

‘That’s Chrissie. Just an old schoolfriend,’ Paula explained quickly, turning the page. ‘I don’t know why I’ve still got that.’

And that was that. No further explanation but from the expression on Paula’s face and the one on Matthew’s when she asked about her, she knew that neither of them was in the mood for talking about the girl called Chrissie.

As for his sister Lucy … well, he would not be drawn on that either. Just to say that she died when she was thirteen and that it had devastated his mother.

‘Have you a picture of her? I’d like to see her,’ she asked, recalling that there were none about.

‘I don’t know what Mum did with them,’ he told her shortly. ‘Maybe she got rid of them. Maybe it was too painful to look at them. I don’t know but please don’t mention her. I know it’s a long time ago but it’s still raw for Mum. Christmas Day is a bummer because that was her birthday too.’

‘What happened?’ She needed to know so that she would not put her foot in it but Matthew just shook his head, expression closed and she knew better than to pursue it. She might broach the subject with Alan one day if ever she had the chance but she and her father-in-law were hardly ever alone and to this day the opportunity had not presented itself.

*

Getting in early from work, Nicola changed out of her work suit into shorts and tee-shirt before making a cup of coffee and, because they were having a good sunny spell, she chose to sit outside in the little patio area at the rear of the cottage. They must do something with the garden, she thought as she tried to relax, but neither of them were gardeners and she could not quite bring herself to employ somebody to do it for them.

They were reasonably comfortably off, for Matthew was doing well and had had a recent pay increase, but she did not earn enough in her opinion and that was a bore. She was used to getting what she wanted when she wanted it and having to save up for something was not coming easy to her. She could still wheedle anything she wanted out of her father but she was less inclined to ask for things these days because she did not want to embarrass her husband. Matthew – and she rather liked this – was an independent soul.

She had no idea how much her father was worth, how successful the Nightingale business was, but she knew that he classed himself as a very successful entrepreneur. He was a fine-art specialist and their trinkets or what her mother preferred to call
objets d’art
were sold on for huge profits and it still amazed her how much their clients were prepared to pay for stuff that would not be out of place in a skip.

It was her mother who had the eye, her father who balanced the books, but they both had the ability to entertain and woo the clients. Sometimes Nicola had the suspicion that there was an element of
The Emperor’s New Clothes
about the whole set-up but she found it wise over the years not to argue with the choices her mother made, even if she personally found some of them hideous.

She had stuck to her guns, though, when it came to furnishing her own home, dismissing all advice, well meant but annoying, from her mother, and going for her own look. As
it was a dear little cottage, she wanted to accentuate that, the furniture scaled down with a lot of floral cushions and throws, a look that delighted her at first but not for long. How had she ever thought that such a mismatch of patterns and colours would go together? It was like living in a kaleidoscope. Now that she had time to think more carefully, she wanted to go for a much edgier look, modern with a twist although she was not quite sure what that meant but it would not suit this house. Their next house would have room to breathe with space for sumptuous enormous sofas and she wanted a large bedroom with a separate dressing room and an en suite of course, instead of the tiny bathroom here with the fickle shower that was either a trickle or a torrent according to its mood.

After a year, this cottage by the banks of the river was beginning to depress her. It had seemed so sweet in such a romantic location when they first moved in, a little love nest, but now its quaintness was wearing thin and there was just not enough room. Close by the river as it was, there was a whiff of dampness about and it needed a lot of work to bring it up to scratch; it was also remote and she felt marooned here. What she would like was to have neighbours, a woman of her age, somewhere to pop in for a coffee and a chat, some woman she could talk to and grumble at. Ideally she would like to live in a village, somewhere where she and Matthew could make an impact, and she saw no reason why that could not be achieved sooner rather than later.

Men were such a pain, weren’t they? Matthew was work-obsessed and all he could think about was his job and his clients and work-related problems. Aside from having a bash at cooking, he left all things domestic to her, so if she didn’t do it then it simply did not get done, which was extremely annoying. Her mother had offered to pay for a cleaner but she could not get anybody to come as far out as this and, in any case, she did not care to have someone poking around when
she was not here. She knew if the tables were turned and she was the cleaner and the lady of the house was out then she would certainly be unable to resist having a quick nosy around. Underneath the smart exterior she presented to the world, she knew she was a bit of a slut with sluttish habits and she did not want a cleaning woman finding out what lurked in her knickers drawer.

BOOK: A Close Connection
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