Authors: Susan Sallis
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Sagas, #Contemporary Women
Judith is suddenly all alone in the world. Her husband, Jack, has left her – why, she doesn’t really know. Her two sons are in Australia, and both her mother and her best friend, Naomi, have recently died.
Embarking on a journey to Exmoor to meet the famous artist Robert Haussman, with an oddly assorted group of fellow-enthusiasts, Judith finds herself prey to all sorts of irrational fears. Chief among them is the increasing conviction that Jack is dead. Why did he leave her? Where has he gone? And why does Robert Haussman exert such a strange influence on her?
Set in the Somerset countryside that Susan Sallis knows so well, this heartwarming novel shows how life, love and art cannot always meet happily together.
For my family
The discreet advertisement in the local paper announced: ‘Unique opportunity for art lovers. Four nights at Castle Dove. Final week of Robert Hausmann’s retrospective exhibition. Somerset’s much-loved landscape artist will be in residence to talk about his work. Luxury mini-coach. All inclusive. Telephone …’
Judith squinted slightly as she printed the eleven digits on the side of the paper with a pencil she had dug out of the garden that Sunday afternoon; her glasses were probably upstairs. She dreaded Sundays: in spite of the supermarkets opening practically all day, Sundays still seemed shut down. Internalized. An exclusion zone around each household.
She spotted her glasses on top of the television, discovered that she had reversed the digits, scribbled them out and started again. Was there such a thing as dysnumeracy? Well, it was probably better than dyslexia anyway. She checked again, tore the edge off the newspaper, and stuck it behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Then she returned to the paper and her après-gardening cup of tea and read the local football results so that she could pass them on to the boys in Australia; then the obituaries.
Arnold McCready had died; she was shocked. He was a
regular golfer, retired for some time, so older than Jack. She had met him in the clubhouse and had a nodding relationship with his wife. Beattie, presumably Beatrice. Called herself a golfing widow. Well, she was a fully-fledged widow now. Sympathy cards, flowers, lots of callers. Judith tightened her mouth against unexpected tears. He had been a nice chap. He had spotted her in the library a week ago and hadn’t pretended not to see her. He’d come up, half-a-dozen books under one arm, free hand held out. ‘Judith! How are you? Sorry, stupid question. Listen, if you’re stuck for a strong, long arm – light bulbs, exploding washing machine – you know the sort of thing, our number is in the book. I’m no do-it-yourselfer, but it’s worth ringing me before you go to the Yellow Pages. OK?’
She had smiled gratefully, knowing that she would not take advantage of the offer simply because Beattie wouldn’t like it. Surprisingly, other wives were highly suspicious of women who no longer had husbands. Naomi had told her that; she had known from personal experience.
She closed and folded the paper neatly, not allowing herself to think about Naomi. Death was so … final. At least Jack was alive, even if he had deserted her. And that’s what he had done. Incredible, really. Jack. A deserter. He would have been shot in the War. And serve him right, too.
She tried to whip up her anger. The divorce helpline had told her that anger was good at first, it was a source of energy. But underneath the whipped-up anger were other much less positive emotions. Bewilderment. Absence of confidence. A feeling of standing on the edge of a precipice. And now … these damned tears. For Arnold McCready, yes. But also for Jack.
She ripped off her specs and scrubbed her eyes with a
tissue, then went to the kitchen for more tea. Dammit, she would go on this trip in this damned minibus. She’d always liked art exhibitions and had been within six months of completing a two-year course in visual art when she’d been nineteen. Then Jack had come along and a year later she’d been an old married woman with twin boys. And now she was forty-eight, both sons doing well in Australia, nice home, fairly new car, no husband.
She stared out of the window, waiting for the kettle to boil, admiring the long flower border she had spent the afternoon clearing. It was September, and she was already ‘putting the garden to bed’ as she called it.
Jack had not approved wholeheartedly of gardening as a hobby.
‘Too solitary,’ he had said – not long ago. ‘You should join something. Make friends.’
She’d had a good friend, Naomi Parsons. She allowed herself – just while the tea brewed and she refilled the kettle – to think of Naomi.
Naomi had been one of the local librarians, and had suggested books that Judith’s mother might enjoy. She had always been cheerful; she had made sure that the four high window ledges in the old-fashioned building had held fresh flowers. Judith remembered hearing her in the children’s corner, talking about a vase of cowslips she had picked and brought in that morning. ‘When I was a little girl like you,’ she’d been saying, ‘I used to pull out one of these tiny trumpets, very gently, and taste the nectar.’ She had laughed, lifting her head slightly. ‘Then I could understand just what the bees and other insects enjoyed for their breakfast every morning!’
Someone – the child’s mother probably – had laughed too,
but said, ‘Don’t you try that, Beverley! You’re likely to poison yourself with all the traffic fumes we get these days!’
Judith had thought how much the twins would have enjoyed Naomi, had they known her when they were little. She began to notice little things about the tall, rather gangly librarian. Her laugh was infectious and bubbled somehow – she lifted her head to let it out; she wore a wedding ring and Judith had heard her turn down an invitation to attend a library meeting after-hours. ‘I’m really sorry – you know I have to get home for William.’ Was William the husband or a child?
Then two things had happened: firstly, Judith’s dearly loved mother had died, and then Judith had stopped going to the library for a whole month. Jack had said, ‘Listen, love. We have to do something to … to break through … this time. Let’s go off and see the boys. Or just have a holiday.’
She was surprised. ‘I’m all right, Jack, honestly. I need to be quiet—’
‘But you’re so rarely quiet! You’ve gone inside yourself somewhere – I can’t find you!’
She tried to grin. ‘So, I really am a dumb blonde, as you once so charmingly called me!’
‘I’ve never called you that!’
But he was right, she couldn’t talk about her mother to anyone, not even Jack. Everything she did emphasized the fact that her mother – Eunice Denman – was not there any more. She read articles, watched programmes, so many of which portrayed this remarkable closeness between mothers and their children. The awful thing was, she did not want it any other way. She did not want to leave the house where for so long she had nursed her mother; a holiday would be a penance not a joy. Of course she and Jack would go and see their sons; but not yet … not yet … it was too soon.
Then, when Judith finally went back to the library, because it was what she did each week, Naomi was not there.
One of the others said, ‘Dark hair – tall? Mrs Parsons, it must be. She’s lost her husband, I’m afraid. But she will be back next week, we hope.’
She had been. And Judith had asked her whether they could have a cup of tea together one afternoon.
Suddenly it was as if Naomi was there, in the kitchen, reaching for the biscuit tin. She turned to look at Judith and there was her long face framed in a marvellous hairdo rather like a black satin bonnet, the ends almost meeting beneath her chin. Brown eyes, clear as milkless tea, long uncontrollable legs that made her ungainly at times. Judith closed her eyes, opened them, poured the tea, and went back to the living room. She collapsed on to the sofa and stared out of the window. It was getting dark and the glass showed a shadowy reflection; not Naomi any more, just herself. Her stupid self. Because two months ago, at the beginning of July, Naomi had gone to London to meet someone – Judith never discovered who it was – and had come out of her hotel at exactly the same time as a car driven by a man over the limit had mounted the pavement. Judith dropped her head, held her cup in both hands, and squeezed her eyes shut.
Physically, they had been complete opposites. Judith was short, rounded, blonde and blue-eyed. She had hardly changed from the nineteen-year-old who had so very much enjoyed being swept off her feet by the visiting cartoonist, Jack Freeman. She sucked in a deep breath, opened her eyes and forced herself to drink some of the tea. She must let Naomi go. Jack had said that. He had encouraged her to make a friend, and then had told her to let Naomi go.
‘Let Mum go, too?’ she had asked without bitterness.
‘Yes. Otherwise you are blind to all the lovely memories you shared – we all shared.’
She had seen his point, of course. And she wasn’t blind to the fact that he was looking gaunt, almost haggard, himself. He was right: there had been lovely memories and they were being blocked by the bitterness.
She had made an enormous effort. In her mind she had cocooned both her mother and Naomi in a kind of silk robe, and said goodbye. Then she had suggested that they should have the whole of September with the boys in Perth.
Jack had stared at her, immobile, looked at her outstretched hand, then turned and walked to the window and gazed out at the garden. She joined him. She had no inkling that things were terribly wrong until she glanced up at his face. Tears were gathering along his eyelashes; even as she saw them they overflowed.
She made a choking noise and took his hand. Then he asked her to let him go, too. She waited for more: an explanation of what he had really meant. And, if he had meant what it sounded as if he had meant … some kind of discussion?
There was none. He withdrew his hand and went to their room. She discovered he had packed everything he needed while she had been in her mother’s old room, sorting through the bookshelves.
She followed him around while he gathered up some files. She kept asking why, what had happened? And eventually, was there someone else? He looked at her as if she had attacked him physically. He said, ‘Another woman? I don’t know. Yes, I suppose that’s what it was. It’s over, of course.’ Then he opened the front door. ‘I’m not worth anything, Jude. Just let me go. Forget me. I’m sorry.’
He had gone. But after the long bewilderment and sheer disbelief, the bitterness had come back. She could taste it in her mouth right now. Gall. Her memories of her mother, of Naomi, all tainted. She had not allowed herself to remember Jack.
She swallowed chokingly on the gall and looked again at the darkening window. Her reflection was blurred by the steam from her tea. But she knew full well what she looked like. She looked like Doris Day playing Annie in
Annie Get Your Gun
. Only her curly hair was no longer blonde, it was colourless, and her well-rounded figure would become plump if she so much as looked at chocolate. She had discovered that over the last two months, when her frantically busy life had slowed abruptly, and she really had not had enough to do. Jack had been gone for two months; she couldn’t believe it. No word, no divorce papers, no phone calls. He could be dead. Her heart twisted inside her chest cavity, and she gasped audibly. She put her cup on the floor, ready to leap to her feet and get on with something, anything. And then she subsided. Of course she would know if he were dead. She was being ridiculous. She forced a smile and caught sight of it in the window. And then, suppressing the bitterness with the cold dregs of her tea, she began to remember Jack.
He had come as part of their six-week taster course in graphic design. It was the first time her art college had ventured into any kind of pop art; they had looked at lampoons, and someone had asked about Andy Warhol, and the college had responded by inviting Jack Freeman to give the second-year students a lecture. His visit had been like a bomb exploding in the middle of the lecture room, where such
names as Constable, Reynolds, even Picasso were spoken with reverence. This man had talked to the students about the imminent arrival of the graphic novel. He had used words like ‘vivid’, ‘vibrant’, ‘vivacious’. They had all been ‘fast words’. The vision, and the execution of that vision, had to be quick. Brain, eyes, pencil, paper.