Authors: Deborah Moggach
is one of the funniest and truest novels about modern family life you'll ever read. Gordon Hammond, sixty-five, a builder who has built up his own, modestly successful business, has a heart attack. Whilst recovering in hospital he falls in love with April, a young black nurse, and leaves Dorothy, his wife of 45 years to set up home with her. Dorothy is released like a loose cannon into the lives of her three daughters and chaos ensues. More relationships break up, passions run high and dramatic developments ensue that will change the Hammond family forever.
Deborah Moggach is the author of many successful novels including
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
, which was made into a top-grossing film starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith. Her screenplays include the film of
Pride and Prejudice
, which was nominated for a BAFTA. She lives in North London.
You Must be Sisters
Close to Home
A Quiet Drink
Hot Water Man
To Have and To Hold
Driving in the Dark
Smile and Other Stories
In the Dark
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
(first published as
These Foolish Things
For Kate Harwood
YOU HAD A
problem? Gordon Hammond was your man. He was a jobbing builder, a man with a van. He was good with his hands, cheerful and reliable. He was his own boss, beholden to nobody; he was not the sort to knuckle down under someone else's orders. No job was too small for Gordon in those days. This was forty years ago, when he was just starting in the business and struggling to make ends meet. He had a wife, Dorothy, to support. And then his daughters were born, one closely followed by another, and though you could scrape by on Â£10 a week, especially with a wife like Dorothy who could conjure up a meal out of nothing, you still had rent to pay and as time progressed money to put down on a house.
Gordon called his business Kendal Contractors, for he had a romantic streak and it was on a holiday in the Lake District that he had proposed to his wife. He stayed a one-man band for years and he worked all the hours God gave him. While he hammered and plastered, the Russians sent the first sputnik into space, 3,000 anti-war protesters marched on Aldermaston and Christian Dior, a man unnoticed by Gordon alive or dead, died. For Gordon was busy.
By the late fifties the two daughters had arrived, and though people thought that he and his wife were trying for a son next time, a strong young lad to join the firm, Gordon said he was proud of his daughters and wouldn't want it any other way. His tone silenced any further questions, even from his wife. By 1959 another daughter had been born. She was
born on February 3, the day Buddy Holly was killed; if it had been a boy, Gordon would have called him Buddy but as it was another girl they called her Madeleine. In that year the Mini car was invented, heralding the start of the swinging sixties. It was a decade that passed Gordon by as if it were happening in another country. He kept his head down; he was busy elsewhere.
In 1960 he and Dorothy bought their first home, a maisonette in Chislehurst. They even made a down-payment on a caravan but there was precious little time for holidays, Gordon being rushed off his feet and having to hire an ever-increasing work-force to cope with the demand. Word of mouth did it. He boasted that he had never advertised his services, there was no need for it, he kept his customers because no job was too small, small led to big, one recommendation to another. There was always a demand for a reliable builder who gave a fair estimate, turned up when he said he would, did a first-class job and cleaned up afterwards, not one of those cowboysâwally jobs on the cheap and the next month the ceiling falls in.
In those days the world was a hopeful place. The Russians thrust Gagarin into space, Kennedy was elected President and in 1963 Martin Luther King had a dream. The housing market was booming too. By the mid-sixties Kendal Contractors had a ten-strong work-force of chippies, plasterers and plumbers, in addition to a fluctuating number of labourers Gordon called in on a casual basis. Flat conversions, local authority work, private speculations â in those days property developers were two a penny and in partnership with a firm of local architects he ploughed his profits into some terraced housing in Putney, divided them into flats and made a larger profit which he ploughed into another speculation. And so on.
He put the girls into a private school, St Agnes, in Croydon. Though he winced at the size of the fees, his heart swelled with pride as he wrote the cheque. He bought a larger house, detached, up the road from the maisonette. The
Vietnam War ended; the Watergate hearings began. In 1974 Gordon moved his family into their final home. It was a five-bed Tudor-style property in Purley, woods out the back, garaging for two cars and a dream kitchen at last for his wife, bless her. By the time Nixon had resigned Gordon had built an office extension on the side of the house, there was even room for a small yard for storing materials.
So the girls went to school, benefiting from the sort of education neither he nor his wife had enjoyed. While they did so, his wife, Dorothy, sat in the office and answered the phone. Over the years she had taught herself book-keeping, she discovered that she had a flair for figures, and though they had their ups and downs, particularly when the property market collapsed in the late seventies, there was always work for a good builder, for if people cannot afford to move house they have to adapt the place they are living in, and by now he was the oldest-established builder in the neighbourhood.
The girls grew up. Louise was the first-born. She was blonde and pretty and vague; from infancy she charmed those around her. She daydreamed her way through school, preferring to play with her dolls in a rehearsal for motherhood. Everybody loved Louise and she accepted this with the equanimity of the beautiful. Even her sisters' intermittent bouts of jealousy were disarmed by her obliviousness to their existence, for those who are favoured by nature have an innocence about them, a protective envelope that seals them into their own sunny climate. She grew up into a willowy teenager with long silky hair. Lovelorn young men laid siege to the house; bricklayers hung around on payday hoping for a glimpse of her. In her sisters' eyes she always seemed to be disappearing, roaring off in some sports car leaving emptiness and a smell of exhaust behind her. She enrolled in secretarial college but she never completed the course, she was far too disorganised. By that time, however, it no longer mattered for she had fallen in love with a young venture capitalist and soon she was ensconced in a flat in Chelsea, pregnant with her first child.
Prudence, the middle sister, was the intellectual. âAlways got her nose in a book,' boasted Gordon. With Louise it was âbees round a honeypot'. Not a reflective man, he spent little time analysing his daughters and, when asked, summoned up the same phrases throughout their teenage years. He set each daughter in the mould of his own catchphrase. Prudence was the quiet one, the bluestocking. Prudence, whose self-esteem was low, considered herself plain but when removed from Louise's proximity her face gained in definition. It was a face one could gaze into with pleasure, like a painting of a Dutch interior.
Prudence was the only sister to go to university. She led a separate life inside her head and on graduation day it gave her a shock to see her parents in the audience, so alien did they seem in the mock-medieval hall. In their different ways all three sisters grew away from their parents but it was Prudence who was educated out of her background. Though she knew her mother and father were proud of her, the very shininess of their pride showed up their incomprehension of what she so easily took for granted. They had worked so hard to get her there, and in doing so they had lost her.
She remained a dutiful daughter, however, the peacemaker between her father and her unruly younger sister and the one to whom her parents turned when Louise moved away to her new house in a favoured part of Buckinghamshire. Prudence was the reliable sister, one of life's baby-sitters, who held the fort whilst others were having fun. If she rebelled against this she did it in such a well-mannered way that nobody noticed. Her parents were too busy with the daily dramas of the business and their two grandchildren. And Maddy, her younger sister, though a loyal ally â she would fight to the death for Prudence â had never got on with her father and absented herself by moving away from home and finally out of the country altogether. Meanwhile Prudence got a job in publishing, bought a flat in Clapham and lived there with her cat for company, and a row of African violets, the spinster's house-plant, on the window-sill.
From an early age siblings are assigned their roles and through the years they settle into others' expectations. Louise was the beautiful earth mother and Pru was the clever one. Maddy was the tomboy. When their mother recollected their childhood the same scene repeated itself. Louise sat in the garden, tucking up her dolls on the lawn. Pru lay on her stomach reading a book. And along charged Maddy, vroom vroom, pushing her toy bulldozer over Pru's pages, vroom vroom, pushing it over Louise's dolls. The yells! Maddy was a fierce, sturdy little girl. Sometimes her sisters wondered if her destiny was to act the part of the son her parents had never had, and maybe secretly desired. A truculent girl, she grew up at odds with her surroundings, âa square peg in a round hole,' her father said. Even the name she was given, Madeleine, didn't fit; she never grew into it and remained Maddy from an early age. Photos showed her with a round face and pudding-bowl haircut, glaring at the camera and standing halfway out of the shot.
Despite her glowering, somewhat humourless exterior, she was deeply loyal to her sisters and fought with anyone who criticised them. She was a strong girl, good at sport, and won swimming trophies which her father proudly showed visitors. When he did this she grew red-faced and abrupt; her father considered this rude but her sisters knew she was simply embarrassed. When she was sixteen she dropped out of school. Her father was furious; hadn't he slaved away all these years to get her into the best school in Surrey? But she left anyway and went to live with a group of people in Stockwell who were running an adventure playground. For years she all but disappeared from view. She met Prudence from time to time, but she seldom saw Louise because she disliked her husband. He was a handsome, caddish man called Robert about whom Prudence, too, had mixed feelings but she was more tactful about showing it.
During the late eighties Maddy travelled a great deal, backpacking, and for a while she lived in Canada where she worked with disadvantaged kids. Though she had never
been a student there was a studently feel to her life â footloose, impermanent, at odds with not only her upbringing but with the Tory government, the felling of the rainforests and the conspicuous consumption of many people including Louise's venture capitalist husband. Her face remained curiously youthful, like a nun's unmarked by the passage of time. By the age of thirty-three, when she left to work in Africa, she could still be mistaken for a girl of twenty. âYou must have a picture in your attic,' said Prudence, who was feeling her age. Maddy, however, didn't understand; she had never heard of Dorian Gray.