Authors: Erica James
Copyright © 2011 by Erica James
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Originally published in the UK in 2010 by Orion Books
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The queen of new beginnings / by Erica James.
1. Man-woman relationships—Fiction. 2. Housekeepers—Fiction. 3. Authors—Fiction. I. Title.
To Edward and Samuel, who are unquestionably the best.
“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Clayton Miller had a new hobby. Some might argue it was more of an obsession than a hobby and certainly he knew Stacey wouldn’t hesitate to use the word obsession. She would probably say that it was yet another example of his rampant self-absorption.
Maybe she was right. Either way, he didn’t care. So what if he now spent what Stacey would describe as an unnatural amount of time writing his obituary? It served the purpose of keeping his mind active whilst distracting it at the same time. Not that he went along with the Use It Or Lose It evangelists. On the contrary. He believed in using his brain as little as he could get away with in the hope that it wouldn’t be worn out when he needed it most. Look at Iris Murdoch. One of the sharpest minds of the last century and she still went ga-ga. Why? Because she wore her brain out. Case closed.
The obituary page was often what he read first in a newspaper; he enjoyed peering in through the gap in the curtains of a stranger’s life. Frequently, though, he found himself speculating just how accurate the descriptions were. The question he was facing with his own obituary was just how truthful he should be. The lure to embellish his life with a flourish of colour here and there was proving strong.
Clayton Miller, aged only forty-four and undoubtedly one of the most prolific and best comedy scriptwriters this country has produced, tragically died on his way home to his weekend retreat in the country from an award ceremony during which he’d been given a much-deserved lifetime achievement award for his contribution to the world of comedy; the standing ovation he received went on for a record twelve minutes and fifty-two seconds. An hour later his Bentley Continental GTC Convertible was involved in a head-on collision with a Vauxhall Astra driven by an unknown man. The unknown man survived the crash, but will spend the rest of his life with the death of a truly exceptional writer on his conscience.
A private funeral service will take place for the much-missed Clayton Miller, followed later by a memorial service at Westminster Abbey where his legion of fans can pay their last respects.
In a bizarre twist of fate it would later be revealed that the unknown man was none other than Barry Osborne, Clayton’s one-time best friend and writing partner.
He was not a vindictive man by nature, but circumstances had altered Clayton’s thinking when it came to Barry—or Lucky Bazza as he thought of him. He couldn’t go so far as to kill him off in his imagination or wish a gruesome life-threatening illness on him, but he did think it appropriate that if Clayton should be unfortunate enough to meet an untimely end, Lucky Bazza should suffer for it. If only with a guilty conscience. A fair exchange in Clayton’s opinion, given that Bazza had robbed Clayton not only of his writing career, but his long-term partner as well.
But so much for embellishment. A truthful obituary would sadly fall well short of the glowing tribute Clayton had in mind for himself. All that would stand up to a lie detector would be Clayton’s age. By no stretch of the imagination could he now be described as prolific. Nor did he own a Bentley. Or a house in the country. And since he hadn’t written anything more coherent than a shopping list or his obituary in the last three years, there would be some people who would call him a has-been. A failure.
If it hadn’t been for recent events—he squeezed his eyes shut at the memory—he would be lucky to get more than a couple of lines in the papers:
Clayton Miller, co-writer and creator of the hit series
died today aged forty-four. Separated from his long-term girlfriend six months ago, he lived alone with only his writer’s block for company
But if he were to die right now, as a consequence of recent events he would garner quite a few columns inches. Though God knew what they would write about him. Probably they would point the finger at his mental balance and say he’d been off his rocker. Crazier than Britney Spears. Or more out of control than Messrs Brand and Ross. They might even hint that his death was not from natural causes, that he had engineered it as a way out.
He opened his eyes. Another five minutes trapped in this rattling, airtight Nissan taxi and engineering his suicide would look remarkably appealing. The car’s suspension made it seem like taking a ride on a jelly—not that he’d ever taken a ride on a jelly; who had?—and its lurching motion was causing his stomach to pitch and heave. He was sure that his face was as green as the toxic, pine tree-shaped air freshener dangling from the rear-view mirror. The driver had the heater switched to hot-enough-to-melt-the-dashboard and worse, the man kept coughing and sneezing. Bubonic plague was probably in the offing.
Clayton blamed his current predicament on Glen, his agent. It had been Glen’s idea for him to hide out in some off-the-beaten- track place where the press wouldn’t find him. Doubtless it would prove to be one of those places where there were road names like Lower Bottom Lane, Big Bottom Lane, and Up Your Bottom.
Whatever hellish place he was destined to take refuge in, he hoped the driver knew the way, that he hadn’t been lying when he’d looked at the address Clayton had given him at the station. There was no sign of any satnav equipment on the dashboard, which Clayton took to be a good sign. It ruled out the possibility of a bossy-voiced woman misdirecting them down a one-way track to a ravine and their certain death.
Death. There it was again. It kept popping into his thoughts at the slightest provocation. Was he suicidal?
Murderous, more like it. He could happily take out all those journalists who had written about him lately and never experience a moment’s regret. It wouldn’t solve a damned thing, but since when had revenge been about solving anything?
He wiped at the steamed up window and looked out. Nothing. Zilch. Just miles of empty fields and drystone walls. Wherever he was, with the light fading, it looked suspiciously like the end of the world. He closed his eyes once more and tried to picture himself in happier times when he had been at the height of his creativity.
• • •
It was dark when the Nissan finally came to a stop. The ratcheting sound of the handbrake being yanked on woke Clayton. He stepped out of the car and stretched. Weary and dishevelled, he was in need of a long hot shower.
He looked up at the house and didn’t like what he saw. It was huge. Huge and unwelcoming. It seemed to glower down at him with the kind of I’m-bigger-than-you attitude that had terrorized many a school playground since time immemorial. It made him want to run and hide.
“It’s some place you’ve got yourself here,” the driver said as he hauled Clayton’s luggage out of the boot.
“It’s not mine,” Clayton answered him.
“Just visiting, then?”
Eager not to part with any information about himself—Glen had warned him to keep his mouth shut—he shrugged and nodded evasively. He paid the man and watched the tail lights of the Nissan disappear down the lengthy, straight drive and into the night.
Alone, he sought out the large flowerpot he had been instructed to locate, and rummaged around in the dark until he found what he was looking for. What kind of a neighbourhood was it that you could leave a key under a flowerpot in this day and age?
He let himself in and at once experienced a pang of longing for the toxic warmth of the Nissan taxi. The house was icy-cold. Was this his punishment? To freeze in hell?
How Stacey and Lucky Bazza would love that.
“OK, Alice, we’re all done here. That last bit works perfectly now. Thanks for doing it again. You’re a star.”
Alice looked through the glass to where Josie and the sound engineer were sitting; she nodded at the thumbs up sign they were both giving her. She took off her headphones and stretched. It had been a tiring day. Eight hours of speaking like a chipmunk; it would wear anyone out.
Alice first discovered she had a talent for mimicry when she was eleven years old. Her mother had been away in London and her father, in a frenzy of creativity, had locked himself in his darkroom at the top of the house. Which meant Alice was left to her own devices, a state of affairs she was more than used to. On this particular Monday morning, being between au pairs, she had knocked on her father’s door to ask him to drive her to school. Getting no response, and being a resourceful child, she had taken matters into her own hands. She had gone back downstairs and dialled the number for the school secretary’s office. She could have walked but it would have taken for ever, and it would also have drawn attention to her father’s somewhat casual attitude to parenting. And anyway, Alice hadn’t felt like school that day. “I’m very sorry,” she had said in her mother’s low velvet-smooth voice—the voice that millions were familiar with both on radio and television—“This is Mrs. Barrett and I’m calling to say that Alice is suffering from a horrible stomach bug and will be staying at home today.”
She had spent most of the day lying on the sofa in toast and peanut butter heaven watching corny old movies, happily dreaming one day of being an actress herself. Of being a star. Her father appeared in the middle of the afternoon and didn’t bat an eyelid at the sight of her still in her dressing gown. “You’re home early,” he remarked, helping himself to her last piece of toast.
From mimicking her mother, she moved on to impersonating her teachers. This raised her stock amongst her peers—if not her teachers—and further fuelled her ambition to be an actress.
Five years ago she might have believed that there was still a chance of that dream coming true. But now, at the age of thirty-one, she had accepted that things hadn’t turned out quite as she’d hoped; a corner had been turned and stardom had passed her by on the other side of the road.
Instead she did voice-overs, along with reading for audio books. She was doing rather well with children’s books right now and the author James Montgomery—be still her beating heart—was, as her agent told her, her number one fan and would have no one else read his books. His sales were growing but experience told Alice this was a double-edged sword. If his books became massively successful, she would be out of a job; a big named actor would be brought in to take her place. Some years back she had been the original voice of This Little Piggy—a porcine version of My Little Pony. Her voice, so she had been told, was perfect when the television advertisement was first aired, but six months later, when sales for This Little Piggy had gone through the roof of the pig-sty and were expected to soar higher still with a worldwide market, her agent telephoned with the bad news that Zoë Wanamaker had been signed up in her place.
So yes, Alice was pragmatic enough to know that James Montgomery might well be her number one fan now, but things had a nasty habit of changing. Whatever the future held, she was quite used to taking disappointment on the chin and convincing herself something better—a new beginning—was just around the corner.
She left the recording studio thirty minutes later and drove home. Whenever she told people what she did for a living, they always assumed that she was up and down to London to some kind of glamorous Media Land studio, mixing with the rich and famous. When she explained that the bulk of her work was done in a converted coach house on the outskirts of Nottingham, she saw the disappointment in their faces. Suddenly her work didn’t seem so thrilling. And nor was it: it could be painstaking and exhausting. But at least the work her agent found her was plentiful and varied. She could be in a studio in Manchester one day doing an advert for a commercial radio station, the next she could be down in London providing the voice for a major bank and its telephone-operated accounts, and another she could be the calm, reassuring voice advising airline passengers how to avoid a DVT and what to do in an emergency. The first time she had worked for an airline company, midway through the recording of what to do in the event of a crash she had been overcome with the urge to say in a quiet matter-of-fact voice, “Never in the history of aviation has an aircraft survived an impact with the ocean at great speed, so if I were you, I wouldn’t bother with the life jackets.” She would have loved then to scream into the microphone in a terrified voice, “You’re all going to die!”
It took her longer than usual to complete the journey home to Stonebridge and before she had got the key in the door of her cottage, she heard footsteps behind her. She turned, hoping it wasn’t who she thought it might be. She really wasn’t in the mood.
Another wish denied her: sure enough it was Bob the Body Builder. “Hello, Bob,” she said. “What are you doing there lurking like a mugger in the shadows?”
“Hey, no one who looks as good as this lurks in the shadows.” To prove his point, he flexed his biceps and thrust out his colossal chest. Goodness only knew how many hours of weight lifting he was doing now or what quantity of steroids he was consuming. Despite the cold November weather, he was dressed in his customary bursting-at-the-seams T-shirt and baggy tracksuit bottoms. His exposed flesh was sun-bed tanned and as hairless as a baby’s bottom. He was buffed to within an inch of his life. “This is a package that stands out,” he said. “Trust me when I say it amazes and astonishes.”
“As does your modesty.”
“I’ve told you before, Alice, all that modesty claptrap is for losers.”
“So what can I do for you?”
“Mum needs a favour. She said to ask you to come round the moment you got home.” Suddenly Bob the Body Builder sounded like a six-year-old boy. Sweet.
“Tell her I’ll be there in five minutes.”
He puffed out his chest again. “How about that drink you’re just dying to have with me tonight?”
Ah, not so sweet. “Sorry, Bob, it’s been a long day.”
He shrugged. “Your loss.”
“I’ll do my best to try and get over it,” she said. She turned the key in the lock of her door and stepped inside.
Ever since Bob and his mother had moved in next door last year, Ronnetta Tanner had been trying to fix Alice up with her beloved son. “He’d be perfect for you,” Ronnetta had said. In what way exactly, Alice wasn’t entirely sure. The only thing they had in common was their age.
• • •
Whenever Ronnetta Tanner opened the doors of her 1960s drinks cabinet, Alice always expected to hear the tinkling music-box sound of Greensleeves, accompanied by a mechanical ballerina pirouetting stiffly amongst the glasses and bottles. In the absence of these two things, there was a light that illuminated the interior of the cabinet as well as the two flamingos etched into the glass panels on the inside of the doors. Kitsch didn’t do it justice.
“What’ll it be, then?” Ronnetta asked Alice in her gravelly voice that had only recently seen the back of a fifty-a-day habit following a course of hypnotherapy. It was a gift of a voice for Alice to copy and she had used it several times in her voice-over work.
“I’ll have my usual, but make it a small one, please, Ronnetta. Go easy on the gin. What was it you wanted to ask me? Bob mentioned something about a favour.”
Their drinks poured and ice added with tongs from a plastic ice bucket, Ronnetta handed Alice her tumbler and settled herself in the chair opposite. Ten years older than her drinks cabinet, Ronnetta was just as showy and unrestrained. She was dressed in black leggings with an oversized red mohair sweater belted at her waist. Black high-heeled shoes were trimmed with two red bows. Alice had never seen her in flat shoes. Even for cutting the small patch of lawn at the back of her house, Ronnetta wore high-heeled slingbacks. The style Nazis would claim that for her age she wore too much jewellery and too much make-up. Her long nails—her pride and joy—were the real thing and were carefully manicured and varnished every other day, and by Ronnetta herself. As she repeatedly told Alice, she wasn’t about to entrust her precious nails to some gum-chewing, clueless girl who would cover them with plastic monstrosities quick as a flash. In the year that Alice had known her neighbour, she had never once seen those nails unpainted. Today they were red, in keeping with her outfit. Her real name was Veronica but it had been shortened to Ronnie as a child and then later in life she became Ronnetta. The name certainly suited her.
“I’ve been let down by one of my girls,” Ronnetta said after Alice had taken a sip of her gin and tonic, “and I was wondering if you could help me out. I need someone tomorrow. Sorry it’s such short notice.” She crossed her thin legs, got herself even more comfortable. “How’re you fixed?”
“What kind of a job is it this time?”
“Cleaner, but there’s a possibility that there could be a bit of housekeeping thrown in.”
“And how many times a week would I be needed?”
“That’s up to the client really. I said to the chap who’s organized it all on behalf of the client that we’d play it by ear, see how things go. I only saw the house for the first time yesterday after I’d been sent the key, but I can tell you it’s big. The poor man will be rattling around in it like a pea in a drum. At least that means the cleaning should be minimal. You’ll have to do his shopping, though. He doesn’t drive.”
“What about cooking?”
“I don’t think you’ll be expected to do that.”
Alice considered Ronnetta’s request. Since Ronnetta had started her cleaning agency, going from just two women from the village who worked for her to having a team of more than twenty to handle the extra services offered, Alice had often helped her neighbour out when she’d been let down. It wasn’t that she needed the money; it was more a matter of enjoying the opportunity to poke about in someone else’s life. “How long will you need me for?” she asked.
“The job itself is open-ended at the moment. But I’d only need you for the next week or two. By then I’ll have found a replacement for the girl who’s messed me about. Usual wages apply.” She added these last words with a crinkly-eyed smile and a jangle of bangles as she raised her glass to her lips.
“Go on then, why not? It looks like I’m in for a quiet fortnight anyway. What time do I have to be on parade tomorrow?”
“Is it here in the village?”
“On the outskirts, on the Matlock road. It’s very remote. Real back of beyond stuff, half a mile from the main road. Not a single neighbour on the doorstep. I’ll get the address for you.”
While Ronnetta was out of the room, Alice took a long, thoughtful sip of her drink. Outskirts of Stonebridge. On the Matlock road. What were the chances? A huge place with not a single neighbour? It sounded very like Cuckoo House.
“Here you are,” Ronnetta said when she returned and handed over a slip of paper to Alice. “The client is a Mr. Shannon and he’s staying at Cuckoo House. Have you heart of it? You always seem to know everyone and everything round here.”
“It certainly rings a bell.”