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Authors: Patricia Fawcett

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

A Close Connection (9 page)

BOOK: A Close Connection
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Matthew looked on this place as a hotel rather than a home, not interested in doing anything to it, and although she did not expect him to be some sort of do-it-yourself champion, she had hoped he would have got his finger out and done something during the past year. And another thing, when were they going to take a break themselves? No holidays were planned and they had left it a little late unless they did one of those last-minute things. She should just book something and sod him. Inform him when it was done and then he could not make excuses.

She would do that, she vowed, and also whilst she was at it she would ask an estate agent to call round to see what the place was worth now, if there was the remotest chance of them making a skinny profit if they sold.

She got up and, with the estate agent in mind, crouched down and picked out a few weeds from the narrow bed. Perhaps John, her mother’s man, would agree to pop over for an afternoon and do something with it.

No, she would not be going on maternity leave any time soon, she had more or less said yesterday to Mr Gilbert. It had been a hilarious conversation when, discussing future events, he had not quite asked the question and she had not quite answered it. Apparently Emma’s hints about moving back up north were becoming ever bolder and he felt it was just a matter of time. What would they do without her?

‘You can rely on me long-term, Mr Gilbert,’ Nicola said, tugging at her jacket so that he might notice just how smart
and professional she looked. ‘I can do this job standing on my head and I would love to be given the opportunity. Emma has been such a wonderful person to shadow and I have valued every minute spent with her.’

Was that overdoing it? Frankly Emma was a pain in the arse, a fusser and a flounderer, but she was not going to say a thing against the woman, not when for some daft reason Gerry Gilbert was half in love with Emma and thought the sun shone out of her large behind. Emma was one of those good-looking overweight blondes, her suits one size too small, but with ridiculously small feet that she squeezed into neat shoes. The size of her own feet, far too large, was the one thing she would change given the chance. Emma was a smiley individual loved by one and all, which did leave a sour taste in Nicola’s mouth because she knew she was not liked half as much, but then people who spoke their minds seldom were.

Maternity leave? What a ghastly thought! She was nowhere near ready for all that and in fact, she was not sure she would ever be ready and, after a year of marriage, her mother was starting to drop not very delicate hints. She wanted to be a grandmother before she got too old to enjoy it and she was desperate to spend money on her first grandchild. He would want for nothing. Already, ridiculously, she was starting to think about possible schools for the as yet imaginary child, insisting that she would of course foot the bill. That was laughable because there was no way Matthew would agree to such a thing. He was proud of his school roots, of the ordinary innercity school at which he had excelled, becoming head boy and the best performing student in his year which, coupled with a burning ambition to be the best, had led to his prestigious place at Oxford. If that school was good enough for him, then something of a similar vein would be more than good enough for his child.

Paula had not said a thing about children, never dropped
the slightest hint, at least not to her but then their relationship was not close. To her, Paula always seemed one step removed, awkward with her, keeping something from her, smiling on the surface but not within. Maybe she had not mentioned children because she just assumed it would happen eventually.

If so, it was a dangerous assumption.

She did not think of herself as maternal, able so far to contain the cooings and mummy-like face contortions which the average woman seemed unable to avoid when confronted by a baby but, when she and Matthew talked about it in general terms, a far-off family, she did not tell him that she was so frightened about the whole messy business of giving birth that she could not contemplate it.

She hated needles, hospitals, the indignity and most of the all the agony. She had seen those women on television writhing about screaming their heads off and it scared the shit out of her. She was no good with pain and unless she could be knocked out completely during the process she was not going to put herself into that unenviable position – legs apart, pushing until the slithery thing slipped out all covered in blood and looking like nothing on earth.

No, thank you very much.

She could, she reckoned, put Matthew off the idea for a number of years yet. After all, a lot of women these days did not become pregnant until their forties so there was ages to go, and by the time she was approaching forty they would be set in their ways and probably decide that it would be much too much of an upheaval. By then, they would be doing well in their careers and they would have a home somewhere by the sea to be proud of. She would end up like her mother; comfortably off and able to afford whatever she wanted, content enough with her husband – although making do with him might be a better description.

Married barely a year and already the excitement had
dimmed, the thrill of being together all the time had fizzled out and they had settled into a routine, as she supposed all married couples did sooner or later. Sex with Matthew was good, as good as any she had experienced before anyway, and there was most definitely a spark between them.

She really did love him and she knew that other women must envy her for having such a handsome husband.

As to children, the jury was out. She supposed she might succumb sooner or later because it did not seem quite fair to Matthew to deny him a child, but just now the only person who would be remotely disappointed about the non-appearance of children would be her mother. But that was only because she wanted to be seen as a glamorous grandmother.

But she would get over it and it would save her a fortune in school fees.

E
LEANOR WAS GETTING
ready for dinner that evening on the fifth day of their holiday. They did not get back until late from the trip to Verona through the manic Italian traffic, which gave them a shorter time than usual to get ready. Eleanor liked to take her time – scented bubbly bath, a rest with her feet up, then time spent doing hair, nails and make-up – so she was not in the best of moods.

She was in two minds whether or not to make a complaint to that useless tour rep, who ought to be aware by now just how long the journey back from Verona took, and in addition ought to take into account the fact that some people would always be back at the coach later than the appointed time. There had been a sarcastic round of applause when the latecomers had arrived, but although it was good-natured – for after all they were on holiday – it just wasn’t good enough and she made sure from the glance she gave them that the couple knew her thoughts on the matter as they scuttled past her.

Arriving back eventually and throwing them out of the coach, dusty and dishevelled, with barely an hour before their dinner reservation, was just not good enough either. However, on balance, she decided to give the girl another chance as she did not wish to draw attention to her. She was annoyed with
Henry, who had flirted outrageously with the poor girl as they waited in Verona for the last of their party to arrive at the coach station. It had been just a touch embarrassing as she was sure that Paula had noticed. What was he thinking of? The girl was younger than Nicola for heaven’s sake. However, she was not going to make a thing of it because it was just his way and it was going nowhere. She and Paula had seen little of the men that day, only meeting up again back at the coach where she had stored away her shopping; some gorgeous silky items from a boutique in Via Mazzini.

‘What on earth did you two do all day?’ she asked her husband.

‘What did you ladies do? Other than shopping of course.’

‘We had a lovely time. We had lunch and a wander round. Paula loved it all.’

‘I’m knackered. Alan dragged me all around the bloody place. He had a list of things he wanted to see. We went to an ancient church and the old Roman theatre and some museum or other and then we climbed to the …’ He touched his head. ‘Can’t remember the name but we did have a good view from there and then I persuaded him to stop for lunch and we finished off with a few beers and then afterwards we looked at some paintings and statues in a gallery.’

‘That must have been right up your street.’

‘Not our thing, darling. The only paintings I care about are those that you can put a price tag on. I don’t care if I never set foot in a museum again but you can’t keep him away from them. Don’t leave me alone with him again. This is a holiday for Christ’s sake.’

She laughed. ‘At least I don’t have that problem with Paula. Did you talk about anything else, though? Anything more personal?’

‘Such as?’

‘Did you talk to Alan about his daughter?’

‘What daughter?’ Henry was still out on the balcony, in his day clothes, acting as if he had all the time in the world. However, she knew he could be in and out of the shower, shaved and dressed in fifteen minutes flat if he put his mind to it, so she was determined not to nag him.

‘Their daughter died and Paula won’t talk about her.’ Eleanor deftly applied her make-up, pleased that her skin was holding up, although she needed a good coating of make-up these days to look her best. She was very careful now with the sun so as to avoid that awful deep-tanned look that used to be so popular. She regretted the hours spent soaking up the sun when she was younger, frying herself to a light-golden colour, but the damage was done and she had to make the best of it. Thank goodness her hair was still as sleek and thick as ever and tonight she had decided to wear it up which was always a fiddle but worth it. ‘I tried to get her to open up about it and I was only trying to help but she clammed up. From my experience it would help her a lot if she would talk about it to a sympathetic listener.’

‘It’s not the sort of thing men talk about,’ he said, coming back into the room and sliding the balcony window shut. The noises from the coast road were immediately shut off and the silence was welcome, although the low buzz of the air conditioning was a constant irritation. Henry was still in no hurry, the leisurely way he was taking off his shoes exasperating her.

‘You must talk about something when you are together, when you were between museums for instance.’

‘We talked about Verona and Veneto if you must know. Old Al is quite the historian. He did well at school apparently and could have gone to university but his father wanted him to go into the family business so he was not encouraged. I got the impression it was a bit of a sore point.’

‘I find that hard to believe.’ Frowning, Eleanor reached for her dress and stepped into it, turning so that Henry could zip
her up. ‘Perhaps he’s just saying that to impress you. Anybody can say that they could have gone to university.’

She gave up on finding out any further information about the daughter from Henry but she was not giving up on more probing of her own. She had chosen the wrong moment, that was all, and been rather ham-fisted. A gentler approach was called for. The obvious clamming-up had succeeded in arousing her curiosity, though, and she determined to find out just what had happened. Nicola knew very little about it either which made her think that there was something odd about it. How had she died? Had it been an accident? An illness? Suicide? The latter might explain the reluctance to talk about it although it was too awful to contemplate. ‘Alan doesn’t strike me as the university type,’ she finished, admiring herself in the mirror.

‘You wouldn’t say that if you’d heard him going on about Verona. He’s a dark horse, that one. I tell you, the man’s a walking bloody encyclopaedia. He looked it up, he said, before he came because he doesn’t like to come to a place half-arsed.’

‘I bet he didn’t say that.’

‘Maybe not the exact words but it was what he meant.’

‘If that’s the case, then that will be where Matthew gets his brains from,’ Eleanor said, smoothing down her dress and glancing pointedly at her watch. ‘It’s certainly not from his mother. Paula, sweet as she is, is hardly the smartest lady, is she? She was very keen to tell me that she knew about
Romeo and Juliet.
She knew all about it she said. I expect she’s watched something on television about it for I certainly don’t have her down as a Shakespearian scholar.’

Henry laughed. ‘You are right there.’

‘It’s lucky for Matthew that he’s got his father’s looks as well as the brains.’

‘Apart from the eyes. He’s got his mother’s eyes. Have you noticed her eyes?’

‘Can’t say I have.’

‘People would pay a fortune to have contact lenses that colour.’

‘Do you think so?’

She hesitated, rooting through her jewellery and deciding on a simple silver strand necklace. The dress was burnt orange, not an easy colour, and not only because it was damned difficult to get a lipstick to tone, but she had managed it. She watched as her husband disappeared into the bathroom and wondered if she should attach any significance to the fact that he had noticed the colour of Paula’s eyes. It irked her that he had noticed. Men rarely noticed women’s eyes unless there was a sexual attraction, unless there had been direct eye contact. She wondered if Henry would remember the colour of her eyes if anyone should ever ask him.

As to Paula’s, they were without doubt the woman’s best feature. A subdued mix of green and grey, most unusual, and if she was lucky enough to have eyes that colour she would accentuate them cleverly with discreet eye make-up. Paula did not seem to bother much with make-up, just a touch of the same old pink lipstick and maybe a smudge of foundation but she scarcely needed it because her skin was enviably smooth and wrinkle-free and, to Eleanor’s irritation, she looked considerably younger than her years. Of course the fact that she was so alarmingly tiny helped. From the back when she was wearing flat shoes, she could pass for a 12-year-old.

She was not too worried. Paula was hardly Henry’s type, although judging by that ridiculous flirting with that little rep today he wasn’t so fussy these days. He normally went for tall, smooth, sophisticated women and she had turned a blind eye over the years to the little infatuations he had had. If you married a man as winningly attractive as Henry, then the odds were stacked against you. Sex, while all right, had never been that important to her, but a comfortable lifestyle
meant a lot and Henry provided her with that. She did not think of herself as being entirely dependent on him for she could support herself if necessary. She had had what she regarded as a distinguished teaching career in linguistics and enjoyed it while it lasted, but she also enjoyed early retirement from that and now she seemed busier than ever with all the social engagements she had to attend as well as her charitable events.

She was chairperson – for her sins – of the Ladies’ Luncheon Group as well as being a previous president of the local WI and various other things. She very much enjoyed her role as one of the senior figures of the community – What on earth would we do without you, Eleanor? – and she never regretted their decision to remain here when they might have moved nearer to London once upon a time. It made sense from a business angle but it was so much easier these days to conduct business from wherever you happened to be; you could do it from bed if you liked from your laptop and certainly do it from the desk in their office at home with the spectacular view of the garden. Of course, they had to keep track of the galleries where they displayed the paintings and the more unusual items, but they had people to look after them and it all ran smoothly enough. She always attended when they had little events when they might showcase one of their artists, for example; champagne and nibbles and homing in on the right people on those occasions: people with money to burn, people who might be persuaded to part with it if they thought they were making an artistic investment. Quite a number of people were putting money into art at the expense of shares and so on and that was why they were bucking the trend and business-wise doing reasonably well.

She knew that her lazy attitude to sex disappointed her husband, although she could fake it when she had a mind to, so she was not too concerned if he looked elsewhere. All the
important ladies of the past had always turned a blind eye to their husband’s infidelities and having a mistress was common practice amongst the aristocracy. Henry could take a mistress if he so desired but she rather thought he was getting past all that. The pretence would be altogether too much of a hassle for him because, naively, he was unaware that she knew of the previous liaisons that had all ultimately petered out. She had been extra sweet towards him during those little episodes, working on the assumption that eventually guilt would overpower him and he would end it.

He always had.

 

‘Ready, darling?’ she called out a little later, for they had agreed to meet up with Paula and Alan in the bar. Henry emerged looking quite perfect, adjusting the cufflinks on his shirt, nodding his approval at her as she did a twirl for him.

‘Will I do?’ she asked, holding up her face for a kiss.

‘Do?’ he said, his voice a purr. ‘I should say so. You’ll be the belle of the ball as usual.’

She followed him out. Compliments were lovely but sometimes she wondered if her husband was operating on automatic pilot when he said them. As they waited for the lift, she wondered what pretty little dress Paula had picked out for this evening and what Alan would be wearing too.

She found Alan a little intriguing especially after what Henry had said about him.

There was more to him than met the eye.

 

The rush to the bar verged on unseemly and she left Henry to it, taking a seat beside Alan, who had appeared without his wife. He was wearing smart casual and wearing it well and she thought it odd that medium-priced clothes should look so good on the men when, on the ladies, they mostly looked cheap.

‘Is Paula all right?’ Eleanor enquired as she and Alan found a seat in the corner. ‘I thought she looked a bit peaky on the way back. Does she need anything?’

‘No, thanks. She’s OK but tired and she has a headache coming on and no appetite. She thinks it’s the heat. She’s sorry but she doesn’t want us to make a fuss. I offered to stay with her but she wouldn’t have it.’ He tapped his fingers on the table, looking around as if checking where Henry had got to. ‘Just a small thing, Eleanor. She gets upset if you talk about Lucy so would you please not ask about her again?’

‘Goodness, did I upset her?’ Eleanor clutched her necklace. ‘I’m so sorry if I did but I only thought it might help if she wanted to talk about it.’

‘It doesn’t help,’ Alan said in that matter-of-fact way of his. He was very direct and for the first time she detected something of a stubborn nature. ‘We’ve found the best way to deal with it is to try to forget it.’ He looked at her and she was the first to look away, disturbed by the glance for, the more she knew about him, the more attractive he became and she was not sure how to deal with that. If she was not a woman in her fifties, she would say she was developing a teenage infatuation for him. ‘We can’t forget of course, neither of us,’ he went on. ‘But we keep up the pretence to each other. Paula suffers from guilt and there’s nothing I can say to make that better. We stay strong, have done for years, but not necessarily both of us at the same time if you follow what I mean.’

‘I do. I do, Alan. It must have been horrible to lose your daughter. A daughter is so special to her father, isn’t she?’

‘Very special. She was my little princess. I know everybody says that but she really was. She struggled when she was born, a little fighter, and that fighting spirit stayed with her until …’

It was the first time she had seen any emotion from the man and even now, even as he uttered those deeply felt words, he kept it under control just about, his gaze steady, eyes clear.

BOOK: A Close Connection
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