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Authors: Sarah Long

The Next Best Thing

BOOK: The Next Best Thing
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The Next
Best Thing

Sarah Long worked in publishing before giving it all up to move to Paris with her husband and three children. Following several years of the Parisian experience, they now live
in London. Sarah Long is also the author of
And What Do You Do?

Praise for Sarah Long

‘A grass-is-greener comedy about the quagmire of female choices’

Woman’s Own

‘Funny and intelligently written’

Family Circle

‘One to get your teeth – or claws – into’

Daily Mirror

‘A 21
st
century
Brief Encounter

Choice Magazine

 

Also available by Sarah Long

And What Do You Do?

 

 

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically
permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or
use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

ISBN 9781409065838

Version 1.0

www.randomhouse.co.uk

 
Contents

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

 

For Julia

 
Acknowledgements

Thanks to my café friends for morning support, and to Mary Pachnos, Kate Elton and Nikola Scott.

 

‘In love, there are no crimes or misdemeanours. There are errors of taste.’

Paul Geraldy,
L’Homme et L’Amour

 
O
NE

‘Next Wednesday? I thought I had two more weeks!’ Jane tried to keep the note of panic out of her voice. If she couldn’t cope, they’d find someone who
could. Freelance translators were two-a-penny, she couldn’t afford to be difficult.

‘We’ll yes,’ she said, ‘that should be OK, I’ll just have to up the pace, that’s all. Without compromising the quality, of course.’ She laughed
reassuringly. ‘Nothing like a bit of adrenaline to kick the machine into action. Thanks Gus, I’ll be in touch next week. Yup, you too, bye.’

Jane slumped back behind the kitchen table. It was a good thing Gus couldn’t see her, still in her pyjamas, surrounded by last night’s unwashed dishes. It wasn’t exactly
professional. The domestic squalor would have to wait, she thought, pushing aside a pile of papers to unearth her laptop. She was getting good money for this job, and no-one was going to pay her
for cleaning the house.

She switched on the computer and listened to the opening chords of Windows ringing nobly round her kitchen-cum-office. Over to you, it said, now is the time to launch into your flawless
translation of
Bridges of France.
It had seemed such a good idea at the time, working from home. It meant she could fit it round the rest of her life, leaving time for her daughter and her
partner. Juggling on her own terms in a heroic bid to have it all, the way women were supposed to these days.

If she was going to meet this new deadline, she’d need to get at least three chapters done before she went to meet Liberty from school. She took a bite of her toast and watched the crumbs
fall into the gaps between the letters on the keyboard. Disgusting really. There must be all kinds of detritus lurking down there, it could muck up the whole system. She picked up the laptop,
turned it upside down and shook it gently. Bits of food and hair and dust showered onto the table. Even a couple of nail clippings – how vile. She brushed them onto the floor, then dabbed a
tissue to her mouth and set about polishing the keys. You couldn’t be expected to work when your fingers stuck to the plastic piano, made glutinous by a child’s sticky hands.

She threw the tissue in the bin and ran her fingers over the smooth surface of the clean keyboard. That was better; she was now equipped for a full day’s work. She pushed her hair back
from her face and fastened it with a comb belonging to her daughter that had been discarded beside a plate of congealing gravy. It was no good, she’d have to load the dishwasher. Even for
someone with her own low hygiene standards, there were limits. She didn’t want social services coming round and seizing her daughter.

She swiftly loaded the plates and wiped down the table. It would be nice to have a cleaner, but Will thought domestic staff smacked of bourgeois exploitation, and it was cheaper for her to do it
herself.

Now, where was she . . .
the Pont d’Avignon, rich source of a myriad of treasured folkloric history, not least the celebrated song beloved of generations of children
. . . Too
folksy. She mustn’t slip into whimsy just because Gus had cruelly brought forward her deadline. Start again.
The Pont d’Avignon, source of many legends as old as the noble stones
themselves, and familiar to every French schoolchild.
Better. She typed on, silently, swiftly, and was soon nearing the end of the chapter, which she would celebrate by taking a swift bath and
getting dressed. It was one thing to do the morning school-run in your pyjamas, safely hidden in the car, but you couldn’t stand outside the gates of Leinster Prep at four o’clock
dressed like a tramp.

With just two pages to go, Jane became aware of an unpleasant sensation in her feet. She was wearing a pair of Will’s old socks — he found slippers depressing — and when she
looked down she saw that, for some reason, they were now sodden through. Not only that, the entire floor was covered with water, The dishwasher, of course. Not again: fourteen years old, what could
you expect? Will had retrieved it as part of his spoils from the divorce, determined to take advantage of its extended guarantee. It always broke down when he was safely out of the way.

She paddled her way across the kitchen, soaking her knees as she bent down and reached under the sink in a well-practised routine to turn off the water supply. Once again she’d have to
call the engineer and face his incredulity as he patched it up. You should get a new one, love, he’d say, and she’d agree, only Will wouldn’t hear of it.

Cursing, she pulled out the mop and bucket and started slopping around. It wouldn’t be like this if she worked in an office. The whole house could burn down for all she’d know about
it, whereas being at home meant she was always on hand to take care of domestic crises.

The phone rang again. If that’s someone trying to sell me car insurance, Jane told herself, they are in for a bumpy ride.

‘Hallo, you sexy beast.’ It was Will calling from work. He’d already written his column and was sitting feet up on his desk, swigging from an Evian bottle.

‘Will, great timing,’ said Jane. ‘Your nasty old dishwasher has just blown up again. It’s got to go, otherwise I will.’

‘That’s a very Wilclean threat,’ he said. ‘Just ring Zanussi, it’s under guarantee.’

‘I’m always ringing Zanussi, they hate me.’

‘Don’t dramatise, darling, it’s only an appliance.’

‘An appliance that’s begging to be put out of its misery.’

‘You know our views on needless waste,’ he said, crumpling the plastic bottle with one hand and chucking it across the room towards the bin. ‘Landfill sites are clogged up with
perfectly serviceable white goods, we don’t want to make any further contribution to the death of the planet.’

‘Sod the planet, I’ve got work to do. Gus has brought forward my deadline and the kitchen’s flooded.’

Will observed a brief silence.

‘On a brighter note,’ he went on, ‘I’ve invited Chas over tonight. I thought you might like to do your mushroom risotto. You could stop off at Fresh and Wild on your way
to school.’

‘Or you could stop off on your way home.’

‘I’d love to,’ he said regretfully, as if nothing would have given him more pleasure, ‘only they’ll be closed by then. We’re not all part-timers.’

‘Part-time cleaner, chief cook and bottle-washer.’

‘And talented translator. You are an extraordinary woman, I realise that.’

She softened at the flattery. ‘All right then. What time will you be here?’

‘Dinner time. Have you got proper stock? You can’t make risotto without it.’

‘In the freezer.’

‘Good girl. Love you.’

‘Mmm.’

He was right, she thought as she put the phone down. It was only an appliance, there was no point getting hysterical about it. Will was good at putting things in perspective, he never lost his
cool and often made her feel like a petulant child. Though, in truth, it was easy to be cool when you weren’t the one who had to deal with things.

She threw some towels down on the floor and shuffled them round with her feet to dry it, then sat down at her computer. She’d call Zanuss Ilater, better not to interrupt her
concentration. So Chas was coming to dinner. Chas was Will’s agent, and therefore worth courting. He also liked his food, and was always complimentary about Jane’s cooking. She’d
need to get in some more parmesan, too, for tonight. Will would be pleased with her for making the effort, and she did like it when he was pleased with her.

Sighing, she forced her mind back from the evening ahead and concentrated on her work. Double speed now, no time to waste. The phone rang
again.
Damn, she’d forgotten to plug in the
answer phone. Maybe she should just let it ring? But what if it was Liberty’s school to say she’d had an accident?

‘Hallo darling.’

Lydia. Her old friend. Or to be more accurate, the daughter of her mother’s friend.

‘Lydia! What a surprise!’

Which it was, in one way, since Jane had no idea why Lydia still bothered to keep in touch with her. On the other hand, Lydia called her so often at this time in the morning that it was hardly
surprising at all. They had been at school together, then on to Oxford, followed by parallel lowly jobs that involved a lot of photocopying. But whereas Lydia’s career had gathered momentum
and was steaming along a high-speed track, Jane’s had ended up shunted into a cul-de-sac right here in her kitchen.

‘How are things, Jane?’ asked Lydia. ‘What have you been up to?’

‘Coping with an enormous flood. The dishwasher broke, my deadline’s been cut short and Will’s just rung to say he’s invited his agent to dinner . . .’

But Lydia wasn’t listening. It was always like this, she popped the question, ignored the answer, then roared in with a full account of her own glamorous life. ‘God, I can’t
tell you how busy I’ve been, it’s been wall-to-wall hectic here.’

So if she was that busy, thought Jane, why waste time — especially
my
time — making unnecessary phone calls?

‘Really?’

‘Yes, really. I had to go down to Highgrove last weekend, we’re doing a thing on Charles’s organic stuff. He’s fantastic, by the way, couldn’t have been more
welcoming.’

‘Did you curtsey?’

‘Did I curtsey! This was a professional meeting, I wasn’t there presenting him with a bunch of flowers!’

‘Were his hands softened by luxury or calloused by honest toil?’

But Lydia was already off on a full account of what he said and what she wore and calf lactation cycles. It was disingenuous of Jane to kid herself that she didn’t know why Lydia bothered
with her. Beneath that high-gloss exterior, she was constantly seeking validation for her achievements and Jane’s drab life at home was the perfect foil to her own giddy existence. Busy, busy
me and dear old steady you.

‘But that’s enough about me,’ said Lydia, ‘let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?’

‘Ha ha,’ Jane replied.

‘No, really, how are you?’ said Lydia. ‘Still busy with the old translation?’

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