Authors: Claire Calman
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Epub ISBN 9781407095141
LOVE IS A FOUR LETTER WORD
A BLACK SWAN BOOK : 0 552 99853 2
First publication in Great Britain
Black Swan edition published 2000
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Copyright Â© Claire Calman 2000
Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye
Words and Music by Cole Porter
Â© 1968 Buxton Hill Music Corp
Warner/Chappell Music Limited, London W6 8BS
Reproduced by permission of International Music
Girl From Ipanema
by Antonio Carlos Jobim and
Norman Gimbel Â© 1963 MCA Music Ltd.
Reproduced by kind permission.
The right of Claire Calman to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Condition of Sale
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Set in 11pt Melior by County Typesetters, Margate, Kent
Black Swan Books are published by Transworld Publishers, 61â63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA, a division of The Random House Group Ltd, in Australia by Random House Australia (Pty) Ltd, 20 Alfred Street, Milsons Point, NSW 2061, Australia, in New Zealand by Random House New Zealand Ltd, 18 Poland Road, Glenfield, Auckland 10, New Zealand and in South Africa by Random House (Pty) Ltd, Endulini, 5a Jubilee Road, Parktown 2193, South Africa.
Reproduced, printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc
For my sister Stephanie, who told me to
Get On With It
Claire Calman decided to write a book when she discovered that it mainly involved drinking cups of coffee and looking out of the window. It was some time before a real writer friend pointed out that if she were to select an assortment of words and arrange them in some kind of order, this would speed up the process no end.
Before she got on to daydreaming full time, Claire Calman spent several years in women's magazines, then in book publishing, editing and writing. She is also a poet and broadcaster and has written and performed her comic verse on radio, including for BBC Radio 4's
and the comedy series
Five Squeezy Pieces.
Love is a Four Letter Word
is her first novel. Despite popular demand that she should go back to magazines, she is now working on another book.
Claire Calman cannot decide whether she lives in Kent or London, but then it also takes her nearly an hour to order from any menu with more than three choices on it. Astonishingly, she is unmarried.
My thanks and appreciation to the following for support and encouragement:
My late father, Mel, who had faith in me.
My mother, Pat, who also writes v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.
Stephanie Calman, Richard McBrien and Joanna Briscoe, who wrote rude but helpful comments on the manuscript.
Paul Allen, who was there at the beginning.
Trevor Dry, who bullied me into finishing it.
Vivien England, who provided shepherd's pie and peace and quiet in Devon from time to time.
The Arvon Foundation writing courses, which got me started.
Insight Seminars, which helped boost my confidence.
Anna Russell, my former English teacher, who suggested I could be a writer.
Jo Frank, my agent, who knows when to be nice and when to be tough.
The dynamic and friendly team at Transworld/Black Swan, especially my editor Linda Evans.
She sees herself fall in slow motion, the toe of her shoe catching on the edge of the paving-stone, her arm reaching out in front of her, her hand a pale shape like a leaf against a dark sky. The pavement swims towards her, its cracks the streets of a city seen from a skyscraper, the texture of the concrete slabs suddenly sharply in focus.
It is not a bad fall: a swelling on her left knee destined to become an outsize bramble-stain bruise, a stinging graze on the heel of her hand, a buggered pair of decent tights. Back at home, Bella balances half a bag of frozen broad beans on the knee and sips at a glass of Shiraz. She tells herself it is not a bad fall, but when she wakes the next morning it is as if a switch has been thrown, draining off all her energy in the night. She leans against the kitchen worktop to drink her coffee, not daring to sit down because she knows she will never get up again.
Overnight, London seems to have become a grotesque parody of a metropolis, no longer bustling and stimulating but loud and abrasive. Litter flies up from the gutters. Grit pricks her eyes. She feels fragile, a rabbit caught in the target-beam of headlights. Buses loom out of nowhere, bearing down on her. Cyclists swerve
to avoid her, bellowing abuse. She tenses each muscle in her body when she crosses the road, imagines she can hear the thud-thudding of her heart. When someone bumps into her in the street, she thinks she will splinter into tiny fragments. In her mind, she sees her body shatter and the pieces shower through the air like the explosion of a firework, tinkling like glass as each one strikes the pavement. She imagines them coming to sweep her up so they could painstakingly reassemble her, but shards of her are left behind, unnoticed in the gutter, hidden by a litter bin or a lamp-post.
Her doctor is unsympathetic, sighing through his nostrils as she answers his questions. Months of overworking, he says. Prolonged stress. What else did she expect? Did she want to have a serious collapse? If so, she was certainly going the right way about it. No tablets, he says, no prescription. Time off. Rest. Rethink your life. That's it? she asks. That's it.
Her boss is unsurprised.
âYou're no use to me half-dead,' he says. âSod off to the Caribbean for a month. Drink Mai-Tais till dawn and shag some waiters.'
The Caribbean? She is so exhausted she'd be lucky to make it down the road to the travel agent. Perhaps they could administer her Mai-Tais via a drip.
Visiting her good friends Viv and Nick in the Kentish city where they now live, she wanders at convalescent pace through the web of narrow streets, past lopsided houses and ancient flint walls. She focuses on one task at a time, as if she were a stroke victim learning afresh each skill she had previously taken for granted. Then, meandering down a quiet side street near the river, she sees the For Sale board.
Compared with the London flat she had rented with Patrick, no. 31 is a delight. Sunny. Spacious. With a
proper garden rather than a sad, overshadowed strip of concrete. Yes, says Viv, a fresh start is just what Bella needs. Plenty of companies would jump at the chance to have someone with her experience.
She seems to enter a trance then, dealing with the solicitor, the building society. Writing job applications. Forms, paperwork become a welcome distraction, tangible things to focus on â things she can solve. You take a pen, fill in the spaces in neat block capitals. The questions are straightforward: Name. Address. Bank Details. Current Salary. You do it all properly and you get the result you were aiming for. It feels like magic.
She moves smoothly through the weeks on automatic pilot, gliding through her notice period at work, her smile efficiently in place, her projects on schedule. Now that she knows she is leaving, she cuts down on her hours, and fills her evening with paperwork and planning, even relishing each hitch and setback â the vendor's pedantry about the garden shed, the surveyor's discovery of damp â as something she can get her teeth into.
In her neat ring-binder, sectioned with coloured card dividers, she can find any particular piece of paper in an instant. The rings click closed with a satisfying clunk, containing her, keeping her life in order. She transfers her accounts, her doctor, her dentist, sends out exquisitely designed change-of-address cards. This is easy: making phone calls, folding A4 letters into three and sliding them into envelopes, measuring for curtains. And it fills her head. She needs it to hold her, as if each stage of Buying the House is a sharp staple grasping together the sections of an ancient cracked plate.
Now that she was here, this didn't seem like quite such a brilliant idea. Around her, on all sides stretched a cubist landscape of cardboard boxes. The removal men had thoughtfully set them down in such a way as to make traversing the room an epic expedition, necessitating the use of ropes, crampons and teams of huskies. And the heating had decided not to work. Of course. No doubt the vendor had extracted some vital organ from the boiler the moment they had exchanged contracts. He had taken the art of pettiness to new heights â or was it depths? â arguing over every fitting and fixture, frequently phoning Bella, his manner swinging between smarmy and covertly aggressive. He was sure she would like to buy his wrought-iron wall lights; they were practically new. No, she said, she wouldn't. The built-in shelves? She had assumed they were, well, built-in. What about the curtain tracks? The stair carpet? It still had plenty of wear in it, he insisted, hanging on in there like a dog unwilling to relinquish a bone. âMmm,' she agreed non-committally, deciding its durability was a disadvantage unless you wanted to design your decor around a theme of khaki ripple. He was obviously attached to it, she pointed out, clearly he must take it with him.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Now, sitting on the stairs, trying not to catch her jeans on the exposed gripper strip, she stretched out one foot to flip open the lid of the nearest box. Loo brush, bubble-wrapped mirror, squeaky rubber crocodile. Oh-oh. She checked the label on the side: BTH. Marvellous. That was supposed to be upstairs. In the bth. How much clearer could she have made it? Evidently, she should have written BOX FOR BATHROOM (THAT MEANS UPSTAIRS â THE ROOM WITH THE BATH IN IT). Something else to add to The List: lugging downstairs boxes upstairs and upstairs boxes downstairs.
Her gaze fell on the puckered and peeling paintwork above the skirting board. The only house in the street with psoriasis. The damp. That ought to be top of the list â certainly above getting the sash cords fixed or redecorating the bathroom or Polyfillaing the crack in the study or painting a mural on the end wall of the garden or â¦ In her mind, The List stretched out before her, a rippling paper path, unrolling itself to infinity.