Your mother. The one person you trust. What if you're wrong? Widowed Nan is on her way to her beloved son's wedding. She should be excited, but she is dreading her return to Paradise Place - a small area of Notting Hill that she hasn't dared set foot on for decades. Nan had arrived there as a young girl in the late seventies, desperate for freedom and a career as an artist. But, drawn into a dark obsession that spun out of control, Nan was forced to flee.
And while the only thing seemingly connecting her son's wedding and her old secret life is Paradise Place, Nan quickly gets the impression that someone is watching her every move . . . someone she thought was dead.
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About the Author
First published in Great Britain in 2020 by
Quercus Editions Ltd
50 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DZ
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © 2020 Kate McQuaile
The moral right of Karen Cole to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
EBOOK ISBN 978 1 52940 396 1
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design © The Brewster Project
Cover by Liza Brewster Design and Photography
Kate McQuaile is a graduate of the Faber novel-writing course. She lives in London and works as a journalist, but is originally from Drogheda in Ireland.
Between lifting the poker and smashing it down on his head, there must have been a moment when I thought about what was going to happen, about the consequences of a heavy metal object making contact with flesh and bone. But if there was such a moment, I don’t remember it. Nor do I remember having had any sense of a line about to be crossed, a line separating innocence and murder. The fact is that I have no memory whatsoever of that single moment – if it ever existed.
I’ve been good at shutting the memory of that night out of my mind – or, at least, good at slamming some cerebral door against it when it has pushed too far forward.
But there have been times when I’ve allowed the guilt to wash over me like a tidal wave until I think I’m going to drown. And there will be in the future. Maybe I’ll see someone who reminds me of him, and for a fraction of a second my heart will pound faster and I’ll feel my stomach churn. Or I’ll hear a voice that sounds like his. And then there’s that much deeper thing I dare not acknowledge. It lies below the surface. It will always be there.
I’ve rebuilt my life, reinvented myself. I’ve lied and I’m still lying. I no longer know the difference between what’s true and what’s false, what’s real and unreal.
But I know that I have rebuilt my life on an illusion, a pack of lies I told myself. I invented a new truth because it was the only way I was able to survive.
I realise that now as I walk down the short, narrow passageway that leads to the house I left four decades ago. The house where I became a murderer. Number 4 Paradise Place.
Earlier that day . . .
I’m sick with nerves and with longing. I haven’t seen him for two years, two long years, and now I’m on my way to London to see him marry a woman I’ve never met. The conflicting emotions that threatened to drown me when I first drew the stiff white card out of the envelope are back. They batter my heart and my stomach as every swerve of the speeding train takes me closer to my son, my beautiful, angry son who walked out of my life on the day we buried his father.
He has found love, and I should be happy for him. But I’m overwhelmed by a sense of grief and loss at having been excluded from all the events of the past two years that have led to his present happiness.
I wish I had been part of his getting to know this woman.
Over the years, I had glimpses into his romantic life. Sometimes he brought girlfriends to stay for weekends, and I saw several come and go. I liked most of them, and some of them I liked very much. But they rarely lasted longer than a few months and Chris and I began to wonder if we would ever see him settled.
The wedding invitation stands to attention in my open handbag. My hand slips into the bag and into the torn envelope. My fingers feel their way across the embossed wording that I now know by heart, the names that are etched into my brain. Arnaud and Alice Thomas. Marie-Laure Thomas.
Who are these people? How did Ben meet them? How much do they know about me? Has he told them why he hasn’t spoken to me for two years? Perhaps he hasn’t told them anything about me at all. My name is on the invitation, written in a hand I don’t recognise.
I shiver and turn my face to the window, relieved that the seat booked for me is one of two facing the direction in which the train is travelling, and hoping the man sitting next to me won’t notice that I’m crying.
He does notice, though.
‘Are you all right?’ he asks. His voice is quiet, kind.
This unexpected show of kindness from a stranger makes me even more emotional. I can’t speak because there’s a great big lump in my throat and it’s choking me. So I give my head a series of tiny shakes. They’re meant to tell him that I’m fine and I don’t need or want to talk. He produces a packet of tissues and hands them to me. Then he says something I don’t hear properly because I’m blowing my nose loudly, and he disappears through the carriage. When he comes back a while later, he’s carrying a small brown paper bag from which he takes two paper cups.
‘I thought you might like some tea,’ he says, putting both cups on to the tray in front of me and sitting back into his own seat. ‘Milk and sugar, if you want them,’ he adds, producing several small plastic containers of milk and a few paper tubes filled with sugar.
There’s the hint of a soft country burr to his accent, though it’s not very strong. It reminds me of Eddie – no, I won’t allow myself to go there. I’ve been good at shutting out certain things, but every now and again something random breaks through my guard, so I concentrate on the tea, sipping it slowly. I smile occasionally at this kind stranger, whose rugged face and thick thatch of grey hair suggest he’s somewhere in his mid-sixties. His eyes are a soft brown and when he smiles they shine brightly out beyond the wrinkled skin that frames them.
‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘Things have been a bit difficult lately. It all got a bit too much for me back there, but I’m fine. I am, really.’
I don’t mean to engage in any further conversation, but it’s not easy to tell someone who has been so kind that I would prefer to put a barrier between the two of us for the remainder of the journey. So I let him talk away about his visit to Yorkshire to see his daughter and her family, and I smile and nod where I think it’s appropriate, and after a while I begin to be grateful that he wants to talk to me, that he’s giving me a respite from my own tormented thoughts. But the respite comes to an end all too quickly when he asks me why I’m going to London.
I could make something up, but I tell him I’m going to my son’s wedding.
‘Oh, very nice,’ my travelling companion says.
I look at him, into his kind eyes, and I keep talking.
‘To tell you the truth,’ I tell this man I’ve never met before and will never see again, ‘I’m not . . . in a good state about this wedding.’
Not in a good state is an understatement. I feel angry and sad at the same time. The first I knew of this wedding was when the invitation came in the post just a few weeks ago. I’ve been summoned. I haven’t been consulted. I’ve been sent a train ticket and details of where I’m going to stay. My son has decided these things without speaking to me. He has decided I’m going to spend a week in London, presumably getting to know his fiancée and her parents and God knows who else. He isn’t even going to be at the station to meet me; he can’t be bothered. So he’s sending a driver. The instructions were delivered in a short, unsigned note that accompanied the invitation.
The man says nothing, but there’s a sympathetic look on his face and in his eyes, and, in spite of the guardedness that I’ve preserved for so long, I find myself confiding in him. I don’t tell him everything, of course. I don’t tell him why Ben and I quarrelled. I skirt around that and he’s too polite to ask questions. He just nods, occasionally pressing his lips together and widening them in an expression that seems to say he understands why I’m feeling anxious about the whole thing.
When the train eventually pulls in to King’s Cross, the man stands up and takes his bag and coat down from the overhead rack. I’m almost tempted to remain in my seat and wait for the train to reverse and move north again.
The man has put his coat on and he’s ready to go.
‘I hope everything goes well,’ he says.
‘You’ve been very kind. It really has helped to talk to you.’
I walk through the gates towards a man in a dark suit who’s holding up a big white piece of card with my name on it. All around me, passengers are hurling themselves into the arms of their lovers, their parents, their friends, their children. Desolation and grief overwhelm me.
How different it would be if I were walking through these barriers with Chris. It would be hard, but Chris would soothe and comfort me, promise that everything would be all right and that he would look after me as he had always looked after me. I had always been his priority, the most important thing in his life. Now I was no one’s priority.
‘Mrs Brown? Please come with me.’
I walk behind the driver to a street bordering the station. He has taken my wheelie case and is striding ahead of me. It’s raining and I struggle to keep sight of him as I weave through a sea of umbrellas. Finally, seated in the back of the car, a large black Mercedes, I try to engage him in conversation. He’s polite in that he answers my questions, but he’s far from friendly. He tells me in short sentences that he’s taking me to a hotel in Canary Wharf and that a different driver will collect me later this evening.
The hotel is ultra-modern. The staff on reception are sleek and fashionable. They seem friendly, too, but only on the surface; their smiles don’t extend to their eyes. I’m sure they’re looking down on me, because, in spite of my new clothes, I feel shabby, not quite good enough to stay in this place whose staff look like fashion models.
My room is what I suppose would be described as minimalist, with hardly any furniture apart from the huge bed, and the walls and carpet in shades of white, cream and grey. The only vibrant colour in the room bursts from the huge abstract paintings on the walls. I look at them closely and see that they’re actual paintings rather than reproduction prints.
I have several hours to kill before the car picks me up. I could go for a walk, now that the rain has stopped and the weak winter sun seems to be trying to break through the grey clouds. I became a great walker after Chris died and I sold the garden centre. There was nothing else to do, no one to talk to. Not that I wanted to talk to anyone. So I walked and walked, for hours and hours, miles and miles. I was trying to walk away from myself and I’m still doing it. If I have a day without walking at least five miles I feel that things aren’t quite right.
But I don’t feel like walking through this part of London that seems like a grown-up version of Lego only less friendly. When I lived in London for that short time in the late 1970s, I knew only West London and the West End, and I didn’t even know those areas very well. I can’t remember ever having visited the East End or even anywhere east of Tottenham Court Road.
I look out of my window on to an almost empty street, grey and bleak under the mass of cloud, and the granite-coloured water beyond it. I wonder whether Ben lives in this strange and sterile business kingdom, whether he looks out over the same stretch of the river from an apartment in one of those tall towers. Wherever I look, left or right or straight ahead, I see cranes reaching into the sky. I can’t imagine him wanting to live in such a place.
And then, as if by magic, I begin to understand the beauty and drama of the shifting light on the water as the clouds part and come together again, creating pictures as stunning and beautiful as any moorland landscape. In the far distance, windmills stand out like giant angels keeping watch over a brave new world.
The next few hours drift by slowly. I think about visiting the hotel spa and having a massage and facial but remembering how I felt so intimidated by the reception staff, opt instead for a long, slow bath. And then, although I don’t mean to, I fall asleep on the huge bed.
When I wake up, the room is dark, save for a weak glow from the lights outside, and for a few moments I’m not quite sure where I am. I panic, afraid that I’ve slept through the evening, and that I won’t see Ben, that he’s going to be angry with me for missing the dinner. My panic subsides when I see the time shining eerily from the digital clock beside the bed. It’s only six o’clock and the car isn’t coming until seven. I have an hour to get ready.
You don’t need a glamorous wardrobe when you live in the country and do the job I do, or, rather, the job I used to do. A couple of reasonably smart outfits and a pair of low-heeled shoes will see you through several years of social occasions. The rest of the time it’s jeans, with jumpers and flat boots in the winter, T-shirts and trainers or plimsolls in the summer and wellingtons when it’s raining, which is often.
I’ve had to buy new clothes for this trip to London, including a black dress that Ilaria made me buy. I lost a lot of weight when Chris died two years ago. Clothes that had once been snug now hang off me. The dress disguises my thinness. It even hints at curves I no longer have, despite my being a size ten, the size I was forty years ago. That’s the only comparison between the eighteen-year-old girl I was then and the fifty-eight-year-old woman I am now. My hair, once the darkest brown, is now a bright silvery white.
I stopped colouring my hair when Chris died. I just didn’t think about it. He lived for several days after the accident, drifting in and out of consciousness. I begged God to make him better, but his injuries were too much for him. The doctors said it was a miracle he’d lasted even those few days and that at least we’d been able to talk to him. By the time of the funeral, my grey and white roots ran along the top of my crown, an ugly stripe that showed how much I’d neglected myself.
Perhaps if Ben and I hadn’t quarrelled I might have gone back to caring about my appearance. But we did quarrel and he walked away. And after that I had no interest in keeping up any kind of appearances. I looked old and worn and ragged, and as time passed I looked even older and more worn. I was depressed and sad. I’d lost my husband, and now my son was so angry with me that he wanted nothing to do with me.
People were kind. They rallied around, bringing cooked meals for which I had no appetite, leaving cards and notes to show their concern. But I couldn’t confide in them. I couldn’t tell them Ben had walked out. I left them to find out for themselves, and when they did they knew better than to ask me about it.
A few days after Ben left, Ilaria called me from Florence. We talked on the phone every so often. We saw each other every couple of years when she came to stay for a few days, sometimes with her husband, Matteo, sometimes by herself. Chris and I didn’t travel. I hadn’t told her about Chris’s accident and death. I hadn’t even thought of telling her because I was floundering and sinking in a pit of despair and had lost the track of my life.
‘I’m coming tomorrow,’ she said as soon as she heard what had happened.
She came for three weeks that time. And she came again, just a fortnight ago, to help me prepare for the wedding.
‘I’m taking you to the hairdresser’s,’ she told me the day after she arrived. ‘Get your coat on. We have an appointment at two in Leeds.’
‘Leeds? What’s wrong with here?’
‘We have other things to do.’
The hairdresser chopped at my hair, which I’d allowed to grow so long that I now mostly wore it tied back and pinned in place here and there with clips. Ilaria gave me the odd anxious look, checking how I was coping as the scissors snipped away lock after lock of dull, ugly hair. If only she knew that I didn’t care one iota, I thought at the time. The hairdresser could have shaved my head and I wouldn’t have objected.
As we emerged from the salon hours later, Ilaria was overjoyed.
‘Bellissima!’ she exclaimed, bringing her hands together with a clap and then throwing her arms around me. ‘You look wonderful! She has taken years off you.’
I had to admit that I did look good. The hairdresser had practised her magic and my long, drab, multicoloured hair was now a silver pixie cut.
Over the next couple of hours, Ilaria dragged me into one boutique after another until she was satisfied that I had all the clothes I needed for London and the wedding.
‘But I’ll never wear these clothes and shoes again,’ I protested after I had mentally totted up the amount of money I had spent. ‘They’re ridiculously expensive! You know I have no need for black cocktail dresses and high heels up here.’
‘No matter,’ Ilaria said, batting away my protests. ‘You can afford it. These things are what you need for London, not your old-lady shoes and your safe little jackets and skirts and blouses and your jeans that are too big and too short and without any shape.’
She paused, pursed her lips and began to speak again.
‘I don’t want to be unkind, but you look, well, not very good. I think you have removed yourself from this life that is the only one you have. Chris would not want you to do that. So, please, even if it is only for a few days, make the most of yourself. Bring out that beautiful girl you were when I first knew you all those years ago, that beautiful girl you have locked away under your terrible clothes.’
I stared at her, shocked, not knowing what to say. She had never spoken to me in this way. Her words stung and stimulated at the same time. Why would I want to bring out the girl I was when we first knew each other in London? That girl had got me into trouble and I was well rid of her. And yet something in me responded to the idea that I could, even if just for a short while, be attractive, that I could dare to be what I no longer was. Attractive, feisty, brave.
Our last stop was at a department store, where the glamorous young woman on one of the make-up counters picked out a range of cosmetics to go with my new look and gave me a lesson in how to apply them. Another small fortune. She ran the various products we had bought through the till, but stopped when she came to the lipstick.
Looking at me with a very serious expression on her face and holding up the lipstick as if it were some kind of talisman, she said, ‘The red lipstick. Very important for this new look of yours. If you’re pushed for time, just go for the lipstick.’
So now, I’m waiting in my room for the call from reception that will tell me the car is waiting for me. I’m wearing my black dress and the silver earrings that go well with my silver hair. And I’m wearing my red lipstick like a badge of courage.
It was the autumn of 1977, and Nan’s life was beginning in earnest. She had grown up on the outskirts of a tiny village in the north of England and now she was in a different kind of village, one of those London villages that had joined seamlessly together to form a sprawling city. She was living in Notting Hill and she was overwhelmed by just about everything.
Pembridge Road on a Saturday afternoon was like Oxford Street, except that the steady but disorganised stream of mostly young people was heading for the second-hand clothes shops and stalls of Portobello rather than the Etams, Jane Normans and Chelsea Girls of the British high street. She revelled in joining the stream, happy to look like everyone else, the young people, the tourists, making their pilgrimage to one of the most famous streets in the world. But she felt special, because she knew she wasn’t like the tourists, who stood out. She was living here, actually living in this place she had only read about in the papers and in magazines.
Punks were everywhere, some strangely glamorous, some just plain weird, jostling for space with the longer-established hippies. They seemed to have put a great deal of effort into the outfits they wore, although Nan suspected the electric kettle she saw one young woman carry as a handbag had been inspired by a sense of fun rather than a desire to be subversive. The hippies looked less contrived, less put together, in their floaty cheesecloth and cotton, their clogs and open-toed sandals and their long hair.
On Moscow Road, an artery of Greek restaurants and Middle Eastern cafés that joined Pembridge Square to Queensway, there were long queues outside a public telephone kiosk as word spread about the fault it had developed that meant cheap calls across the world; she usually called her parents from there because for just a few pennies she could talk for hours.
Annie Hall was showing at the Gate Cinema. Nan had already seen it twice, and, like almost everyone else she knew, she now peppered her sentences with la-di-da.
Everything was exciting. Everything was wonderful. It seemed as if nothing could go wrong. But Nan didn’t know that everything was about to go wrong. Because 1977 wasn’t just the year she began to live; it was also the year she began to fall apart.
A few weeks earlier . . .
Her father had insisted on driving her to London in his battered old Morris Traveller, a car that had carried as many sheep as people over the years. He swore quietly to himself every time he got lost, and he got lost many times once the car left the motorway and they were spewed into the London maze. The journey took a lot longer than it was supposed to, and when they finally reached Notting Hill and the hostel, the light was beginning to leave the sky. Nan stared out at the tall white houses, some with canopies made of wrought-iron and glass, that looked like mansions.
Her father parked the Morris and took Nan’s case from the back, glancing nervously around him as if calculating the chances of some crazy person jumping out from behind a wall, intent on doing them harm. They climbed the steep flight of steps to the door and pressed the bell. A nun opened the door and welcomed them. Nan’s father mumbled a few words to the nun and patted Nan on the shoulder in an awkward, almost embarrassed goodbye. He had never been the demonstrative type. And then he was off again, hurrying down the stone steps and across the road to the car, which, squashed into a space between a Jaguar and a Mercedes sports car, looked abandoned rather than parked. He was anxious to be back home where he knew every road like the back of his hand and could find his way across the fields in the dark on foot.
Nan waved goodbye, her heart aching because she understood that the life she had known until now was over. The next time she saw her parents, she would be different. London would change her; she knew this. And even though she wanted that change, even though she wanted to embrace whatever this new life would bring, she couldn’t help feeling just a little bit sad. She willed away the tears that threatened as she watched the Morris disappear from sight.
The nun, who had introduced herself as Sister Maria, led her up several flights of stairs to a tiny room with a single bed, a little chest of drawers with a lamp, a wardrobe, a chair and a table. Sister Maria pointed to the jug of water and Clingfilm-covered plate of cold meat and salad on the table and explained that Nan had missed dinner. She went through the rules. Breakfast was from seven to nine and dinner from six to seven, provided as part of the £14 weekly rent, but girls had to buy their own lunch. The front door was locked at eleven o’clock on weeknights and at half past midnight on Saturdays.
The nun left and Nan hoisted her suitcase, a battered, ancient thing held shut by a leather belt, on to the bed. She was tired and she hadn’t eaten for hours, but she knew that the first thing she had to do was unpack, to make the room hers. Only when her clothes were hanging in the wardrobe, her shoes standing line abreast at the bottom of it and her underwear in the chest of drawers did she feel she could sit down and eat.
The cold roast beef was dry and tasteless and the salad consisted of a few lettuce leaves, a hard-boiled egg cut into quarters, a couple of spring onions and several slices of beetroot that leaked little puddles of deep pink vinegary liquid on to the plate. Under a paper napkin she found two slices of rubbery-looking white bread and a small foil-wrapped rectangle of butter. She was still hungry when she finished eating because the anticipation that had built all through the long drive from Yorkshire had sent her metabolism into overdrive. How was she going to sleep? She wished now that she hadn’t discreetly left behind the bag filled with apples and cheese and ham and home-made bread her mother had packed for her. But her exhaustion after the long journey south turned out to be greater than her hunger, greater even than her excitement, and she was asleep almost as soon as she turned off the light.
The car, another Mercedes, is black and sleek. The driver, who wears a dark suit, opens the door for me. I ask him where we’re going but he says it’s a surprise. I make several attempts to engage him in conversation but he answers in monosyllables, so I give up and spend the journey from the hotel looking out of the window. I keep an eye out for landmarks like the Post Office Tower, Marble Arch, Buckingham Palace, but I spot nothing, not even street names, because the car is moving too quickly for me to get a good look.
We’ve been driving for about twenty-five minutes when things start to look familiar. It’s not that I recognise specific shops or buildings; it’s more the shape of the streets, the way one turns into another or curves along a hill.
It’s only when we turn into a road with a raised pavement and tiny shops on the left-hand side that I have a definite sense of having been here before. I’m trying to work out whether I really do know where I am when I catch sight of the pub. The Rising Sun. The shock is like electricity, jolting through my body. We are driving through the last place in the world I want to be: Notting Hill. And we are close to – I can hardly bear even to think of the name – Paradise Place. Involuntarily, I shiver, close my eyes and start to count – one, two, three, four, five . . . When I reach one hundred, we will have left these streets behind and I will be able to open my eyes again.
But all of a sudden I become aware that the car has purred to a halt. I hear the driver speaking on his phone but his voice seems far away. I don’t know what he’s saying. I wait, my eyes still closed. I’m trying to count but I can’t. I feel a flutter of panic somewhere at the top of my chest.
A blast of cold air hits me and I open my eyes to see that the driver is holding the door open for me. I sit still, paralysed. I don’t want to get out of the car, but the driver reaches towards me and takes my hand and there’s nothing I can do but scramble inelegantly on to the pavement. The driver points towards a narrow passageway and tells me it’s too narrow for the car and that I will have to walk the remaining few yards to the house, where someone will be waiting for me.
‘I . . . I can’t go in there . . . I can’t . . .’
Fear squeezes my vocal cords and my voice dries up. The driver gives me a look that tells me he sees I’m in a state but he says he’s sorry, he would come with me if he could but he can’t leave the car because he has had to stop on a double yellow line.
Am I really back at the place I ran away from all those years ago? Is this real or am I imagining it? But the thumping of my heart and the sickening twist of what feels like a rope tightening around my stomach tell me that it’s all too real. My instinct tells me to run, to run as fast as I can, away from that passageway I once knew so well. But something else tells me that if I’m going to see Ben I will have to walk along that dark passageway to the house beyond. So I stumble along the cobbled, dimly lit passageway, the cold wet wind in my eyes, trying to convince myself that the fact I am here, walking towards the house I fled four decades ago, is all just a coincidence.
Suddenly, I stop. My mouth is dry. Even my heart feels as if it’s no longer beating. In the darkness, I think I hear someone say my name. Unnerved, I whip around. But there’s no one there. I exhale in a short burst of relief. It was my imagination. And then I hear it again, my name spoken so quietly that it could be a whisper on the wind. I turn around again and this time I see a human shape. But this can’t be happening. It can’t.
Because he’s dead.
Because I killed him.
I close my eyes and take several deep breaths, in and out, in and out. But when I open my eyes again, he’s still there. And he’s watching me, his arms folded, a half-smile on his face.
‘It’s been a long time, Nan.’
The shock of seeing him, hearing his voice, overwhelms me. I would know that voice anywhere. It hasn’t changed. Sonorous, mellifluous. And he still speaks in that languid drawl I once found so attractive, so exotic, so dreamy and hypnotic. No hint of estuary has crept into his accent.
He looks the same, too, although that patrician look is even more pronounced four decades on. The deep-set grey eyes, the slightly flared nostrils, the wide, almost perfectly shaped mouth. His once-dark hair has faded into shades of grey, but it’s the same hair, thick and wavy.
I feel as if there’s a vice inside me, squeezing my stomach so hard that I don’t know whether I’m in pain or whether I’m going to be sick. I try to convince myself that he’s not real, that the guilt I’ve tried to suppress over the years has burst through with a vengeance and conjured him up. He doesn’t exist because he’s dead.
But then I feel him take my elbow in the palm of his hand and steer me to the end of the passageway towards the house I had hoped never to see again. Number 4 Paradise Place.
Surely this is all in my mind, all wrapped up in this unintended, unplanned return to London that is laying waste to my emotions. I’m not really walking into Paradise Place. There’s no one beside me. There’s no hand on my arm. Nobody’s footsteps are keeping time with the click-clacking of my high heels on the cobbles.
We reach the stone steps and begin to climb towards the door that I know should be dark green but whose colour isn’t easy to make out in the dark. It’s only when I half-miss a step and almost fall that I realise there’s no one beside me any more. I look around and behind me but, beyond the misty, inadequate light thrown by the single street lamp, there’s only the darkness. Maybe there never was anyone. I have imagined him.
A vertical sliver of light appears ahead and for a fraction of a second I feel a sense of relief, because its strangeness convinces me that I have indeed been temporarily afflicted by emotional trauma.
But, just as quickly, I feel that sense of relief dissipate and turn to panic. The thin sliver of light becomes a blaze as a door opens wide to reveal a woman, a beautiful young woman who rushes forward, holding her arms out to me.
‘Nan! I am Marie-Laure,’ she says, wrapping her arms around me. ‘I am so happy to meet you at last.’
I submit to the embrace in stupefied silence, my voice still caught somewhere inside me.
That’s when I catch sight of Ben, hovering in the background. I detach myself from Marie-Laure and move towards him, wanting to throw my arms around him but not daring to because I’m so unsure of how he will respond. Just as I reach him, he puts both hands on my shoulders, holding me at a distance, signalling with a slight application of pressure from his fingers that I must not try to come too close. He kisses my cheek, so quickly and so awkwardly that my hand rises involuntarily to my face as if to check whether his lips have left any impression at all.
The lukewarm greeting from my son leaves me gutted. After two years that have torn me apart, this is all he is willing to give. But I hide my dismay, persuading myself that this peck on the cheek represents one more step towards reconciliation.
I look at Marie-Laure, whose face is a picture of happiness. Ben looks awkward. He hasn’t said a word. Maybe he’s as nervous as I am, worried about what will happen between us over the next few days.
I’m too overwhelmed to take in the house properly, to look for all the things that may have changed and all the things that may not. We are still in the hallway. I know there is a room to the right of it, but I don’t dare to look towards it. I don’t dare think about the things that happened in that room. I shiver involuntarily. Am I really back in this house or am I somehow going mad? Maybe I’m still at the hotel, in the middle of a dream that has turned into a nightmare.
‘Oh, you’re cold,’ Marie-Laure says. ‘Never mind, you will soon warm up.’
She’s fussing around me, admiring my hair and my clothes, wittering on about how happy she is that I’ve come to London and how excited she is about getting to know me at last.
She’s a lot younger than Ben – at least ten years younger, maybe more, which surprises me. His previous girlfriends have all been his contemporaries. I wonder what, apart from her stunningly good looks, has brought them together. Perhaps he has simply reached the age at which he’s ready to settle down and Marie-Laure happened to be around.
I have no doubt that she will have been attracted to my son not just because he’s handsome but also because of his qualities of kindness and decency (although I remind myself that I haven’t seen any kindness from him in the past couple of years).
It occurs to me now that my future daughter-in-law rather than my son has been the driving force behind the invitation to attend their wedding. I wonder how much pressure from Marie-Laure was needed to get him to agree to invite me.
‘I hope you like your hotel,’ Marie-Laure is saying.
I nod and smile, still too overwhelmed to respond in words. Will she ever stop talking? In my head, I’m telling her to shut up, that the only voice I want to hear is that of my son. But Ben, who has retreated behind Marie-Laure, remains silent. For a moment, I think he looks like a shy toddler. He had been a quiet child. I remember how my father, no great talker himself, would ask him whether the cat had got his tongue. I try the question out in my head. Cat got your tongue, Ben? But I mustn’t say anything like that to him, even if I dress it up as banter. I must be patient, let him come to me now that I’ve made this journey to him.
Two people materialise in front of us, a man and a woman.
‘You must meet my parents,’ Marie-Laure says, beaming. Her smile is wide, her teeth white and even. Her eyes are so lit up that her whole face seems to glow. She seems very young, too young to be getting married. ‘Alice and Arnaud.’ She elongates slightly the second syllable of her mother’s name. A-leece.
‘How lovely to meet you,’ Alice, tall with casually but perfectly styled and highlighted shoulder-length blonde hair, says. She’s wearing a navy dress that is so beautiful and yet so simple that it must have cost a fortune. She bends to kiss me on both cheeks. Her voice is warm and husky; she makes each word sound slightly exotic with her precise annunciation. She sounds almost English.
Arnaud, not quite as tall as his wife, comes forward and shakes my hand, giving the smallest of bows as he does so. He doesn’t look very French. He reminds me a little bit of Vladimir Putin.
I have nothing to say to these people. How am I going to get through the evening, making small talk with strangers, when all I want is to be alone with Ben? I look around for him, but he’s walking away from me. We all fall into place behind him, shuffling away from the entrance hall, and for a few seconds no one is talking to me. That’s when what happened outside the house comes back into my mind. I shiver, remembering the voice, the pressure of that hand under my elbow. But he was never there, except in my imagination, was he?
As far back as she could remember, Nan had drawn things. She had no memory of a time when she didn’t have a pencil in her hand, sketching away. And she couldn’t quite remember the point at which she had decided she would become an artist; she just always knew she would.
When she told her parents she wanted to go to art college, they didn’t react well. Her mother and father, who had both been forced to leave school early to help out on their respective family farms, wanted something different for Nan. They wanted her to have a respectable career as a teacher or a nurse. She was bright, they told her. Why couldn’t she be sensible and go to teacher-training or secretarial college, do something that would get her a job? Look how well her cousin Susan had done, they said. Susan, now twenty-five, had done a secretarial course, got a job in a big company in Leeds, married her boss and was now living with her husband and two children in a huge house with a dishwasher and what Nan’s mother described as all mod cons.
Nan didn’t want to be like Susan, who, once she had bagged a husband and started producing children, had become prematurely middle-aged. No, Nan was going to follow her dreams, wherever they might take her. And now, here she was, following her dreams with a vengeance and stopped in her tracks at least once a day by the sudden realisation that she was in London. Here I am, on a Number 12 bus, she would marvel. Or, Here I am, walking along Oxford Street.
That wasn’t to say she didn’t miss home – her mother’s hearty cooking, those quiet evening walks with her father and the dogs in summer, the way the moorland changed colour under the shifting light and the passing of one season into another.
Her heart still felt a pinch when she thought about that last morning at home before her father drove her down to London. Her mind buzzing with excitement and apprehension, her body as alert as if wired up to an electricity supply, she had lain awake for much of the previous night. And as the first signs of dawn began to push light through the tiny gap in the curtains, she finally gave up on sleep and set off to walk alone around the place that had formed her. It was as if she needed to print its comforting familiarity indelibly on her mind, safeguard her memories of how it was before she left to begin a new life that would change everything.
She retrieved the memory easily. It had been glorious, that morning. The sunlight, pushing through the leaves of the trees, created a stippling effect, making her think of an impressionist painting. The hedgerows were a riot of pink wildflowers, and montbretia grew profusely, bursting from the ditches with its bright orange flowers sitting on top of long, elegant stems. At intervals, the trees parted to reveal fields rolling away from the other side of the stone wall, making clearer the sound of the brook far below and bringing the hills on the other side of the valley closer.
And there she was, willingly leaving this behind. Sometimes, as she walked, she felt her resolve waver. She could go back to the house and tell her parents she had changed her mind, and they would be glad. But those feelings of indecisiveness lasted only moments. She was leaving. She had to leave, because she was pursuing a dream. That dream might turn out to be a nightmare, but she had to follow it, because she knew that if she didn’t she would regret it for the rest of her days.
And now, a world away in London, she made a special effort to remember that final morning and all the colours of home, because they were already beginning to fade.
In Notting Hill, or at least in the part where she lived now, the colour that dominated was the white of the stucco on the tall villas that lined the streets and squares. These houses were beautiful but intimidating. There was no softness about them. Even the hostel looked imposing. But just a short distance away, behind the Gate and Coronet cinemas on the south side of Notting Hill Gate, were narrow streets of much smaller and prettier houses painted in light pastel colours. She walked along those streets every day to the Byam Shaw School of Art on Campden Street, wishing she could live in one of those pretty little houses.
The first few weeks hadn’t been easy. She felt gauche and unworldly in comparison with some of her fellow students, many of whom had come from other countries to study there. She felt less talented, too, even though she had been accepted into the school on the strength of the portfolio she had assembled. In art class at her secondary school, she had stood out; her drawings and paintings were so much better than those of her classmates. Her art teacher, Miss Sheringham, had encouraged her to make the most of her ‘special’ gift and had insisted on paying for the foundation course at Byam Shaw.
‘I have more money than I need,’ Miss Sheringham had told Nan’s parents, who had objected strongly to what they saw as an unnecessary act of charity. ‘I see this as an investment,’ she assured them.
Now, though, Nan felt she was nothing special at all. She looked at what other students were working on and she felt frustrated by her own attempts, which, in comparison, seemed so childish and lacking in originality.
She was beginning to realise that becoming an artist wasn’t just about being able to draw and paint but was also about going through new experiences that would influence the way she thought and the way she saw things. She knew that her mind was already beginning to open and expand; she could feel it. But she had a sense of being so far behind everyone else in that respect and she was impatient to catch up.
She hadn’t bonded with any of the other students yet; truth be told, she was a little in awe of them and their ideas and embarrassed by her lack of exposure to the kind of art they wanted to create in the future. All she wanted to do was draw well and paint well but that didn’t seem to be enough. She was shy in their presence. And the most they did was to acknowledge her presence with a nod. They hadn’t made an effort to get to know her and why would they, she asked herself, be bothered with a mousy northern girl who had no right to be there?
She tried not to think about Miss Sheringham. She had written an eager letter to her former teacher about her first week at the school and had received a letter back. I am immensely proud of you, Miss Sheringham wrote. I hope with all my heart that you will develop into the artist I failed to become. How could she live up to that hope, which, she was quickly realising, had been sorely misplaced?
Despite the shortcomings of the hostel, she felt comfortable there. It was a friendly place and she was becoming friends with girls from all over the world – Colombia, Italy, Spain, Iran. She loved listening to their stories of home, lapping them up eagerly. Most of these girls were in London to learn English. There were several English girls at the hostel, too, some studying and some newly arrived in London for work. But these English girls all seemed so sophisticated, so knowing, even though they were the same age as she was or slightly younger.
She liked Ilaria, an Italian girl, best of all. They were fast becoming best friends, which surprised her, because she had never really had a best friend before. She and a couple of local girls who lived nearby and went to the same school had palled around together at home. But it wasn’t as if she had chosen them or they her; they had just fallen in together and, before Nan had even started to think about leaving, she and they had just as easily drifted apart. It was different with Ilaria. They might be from different countries and backgrounds, but Nan was beginning to feel as if she had known this girl with olive skin and jet-black hair all her life.
Ilaria was in London to learn English because she wanted to work in the Italian tourism industry. At some point, she would go back to Florence, but it wouldn’t be for a long time, not for a year at least.
Nan, making the most of the short time she had been in London and enjoying hanging around with Ilaria, felt a bit guilty that she hadn’t been home yet for a weekend. She cringed when she thought of the disappointment in her father’s voice each time he asked her whether he should meet her at the station on the Friday evening and she lied and said she wasn’t able to make it after all because she had extra classes over the weekend and she didn’t want to miss them.
She felt especially guilty about Chris. He was at agricultural college in Cirencester but he still managed to get home to Yorkshire most weekends. He rang her once a week and she waited at the coin-operated telephone on the ground floor of the hostel for his call, which he tried to make at seven o’clock on the dot every Wednesday. Sometimes the call came later because one of the other girls was on the phone and Chris hadn’t been able to get through.
At first, she looked forward to hearing his voice and was happy when the telephone rang and there he was at the other end of the line. She couldn’t wait to tell him about all that had happened since the last time they had spoken. And then, almost imperceptibly, the anticipation and the pleasure turned into something else that she couldn’t quite identify, and the weekly call became a duty rather than a joy and a time to catch up with each other. The conversation was pretty much the same every week. He told her he missed her and couldn’t wait to see her, and she told him she missed him too and she would get home for a weekend one of these days but she just had to attend those extra classes.
She had been talking to Chris now for what seemed like ages and she was starting to feel guilty about that too, because a girl was pacing around behind her, looking impatient and cross. The girl spread her arms and hands and lifted her shoulders and her eyebrows, as if to say, Come on, finish your call and let someone else use the phone.
‘I’m sorry, but there’s a queue for the phone,’ she said in a whisper. ‘I have to go. I’ll talk to you next week.’
‘Oh,’ she heard him say, a sad-sounding oh that made her feel bad. And then he paused for a second before he said, ‘I miss you.’
‘I miss you too,’ Nan said. And she felt even worse now, because she was discovering that she didn’t really miss him very much at all. She felt uncomfortable about this. She hoped it was just the novelty of being in London and immersing herself in a new life. But she feared that it might be something more fundamental, and that was something she didn’t want to think about.
Ilaria was waiting for her outside the front door. She was sitting on the top step, elbows on knees, smoking a cigarette. Nan held out her first and middle fingers in a vee and Ilaria stood up and gave her the cigarette. She hadn’t told her parents or Chris that she had taken up smoking; she knew they wouldn’t like it. They wouldn’t like a lot of things she did now. Smoking was just one of them. Drinking was another.
‘God, I need a drink,’ she said, with a shudder.
They walked the short distance to The Rising Sun. Inside, Ilaria ordered a half of lager and Nan, who didn’t think she would ever acquire a taste for any kind of beer, asked for a Dubonnet and lemonade. The barman smiled.
‘Is that a Yorkshire accent?’ he asked.
‘I didn’t think it was that obvious,’ Nan said, with a laugh. But it was a slightly embarrassed laugh. She had been conscious of how different she sounded from the other students and had been trying to modify her accent.
‘Well, you don’t sound like Harvey Smith but I can tell you’re from up that way,’ he said, making her smile.
‘You have a bit of an accent yourself,’ she said, picking up on the faint hint of a burr.
‘East Anglia,’ he said. ‘Norfolk.’
Ilaria paid for the drinks and they found somewhere to sit. Every now and again Nan looked around and met the barman’s eyes. She looked away again quickly, but she always looked back and when she didn’t catch his eye because he was serving someone she felt vaguely disappointed.
His eyes were green. He was tall and thin and quite nice looking. His longish, very straight fair hair kept falling in front of his eyes and he would brush it back behind his ear. She hadn’t noticed him here before.
‘Are you new?’ she asked him when she went back to the bar for more drinks.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ve been here for a few months. I’ve seen you in here before, though, I think.’
He asked her about herself as he poured the drinks. He wasn’t flirty, not in an obvious way, but she could tell somehow that he found her attractive. She wondered whether he would ask her out and whether she would accept. Her guilty feelings about Chris niggled her. He was the only boyfriend she had ever had, and everyone, including Chris and herself, expected that the relationship, which had begun when they were both fifteen, would lead them down the aisle. But she was beginning to question that assumption, especially now as she stood eyeing up the barman.
Chris was – well, Chris was a farmer. He was good-looking in a rugged, farmer-ish way, with his brown curly hair and strong build. He would be seen as a catch in Yorkshire, not just because of his looks but because he came from a family of well-off farmers and the farm would eventually go to him and his brothers. But London was where she lived now, not Yorkshire, and she couldn’t imagine him in London. She couldn’t imagine him . . . She didn’t really want to imagine him at all.
During this past summer, he had wanted them to sleep together. She had made excuses, the biggest one being that she couldn’t risk becoming pregnant, not when she had art college ahead of her. She just wasn’t ready to take such a big step, she had said. It might be 1977 but they were in Yorkshire, not swinging London. And, in any case, she had reminded him, her family was religious in a quiet, diligent way, even if she wasn’t. Her father was a member of the parish council. Her mother was on the church-cleaning rota.
She knew already that her parents disapproved of sex before marriage because of remarks they had occasionally made, and she would feel bad about doing something that would upset them, even if they never found out. Chris had been all right about it, although he had kept trying to persuade her that it would be a wonderful thing for both of them.
Nan hadn’t been persuaded. Maybe if she had felt more of a sense of urgency about it . . . But she hadn’t felt anything like that at all. She went so far and no further, because she just never did start to experience all the feelings she had read about in magazines – the intensity, the sense of not being able to stop herself. Maybe those intense feelings would come later with Chris. She had read about that, too; how that could happen with someone you had known for years and take you by surprise. She and Chris had got together at a hop in the village hall, when he was the only boy who asked her to dance. He asked whether he could walk her home and she said yes. He didn’t try to hold her hand or kiss her, but as he said goodnight and she thanked him for walking her home, he suggested they might go for a walk the following day. And so they drifted slowly into a girlfriend–boyfriend relationship; it wasn’t particularly exciting – she didn’t once think she might lose control – but it was quite nice.
She wondered now what it would be like to kiss the barman. He didn’t ask her out, but he did ask her when she would be back in the pub.
‘Oh, I don’t know; maybe tomorrow evening if I’m not busy,’ she told him, trying to sound casual.
But of course she would be back. She liked the attention he was paying her. She picked the drinks up slowly, turning her head away from the barman, showing him the side of her face she thought looked good in profile, giving him time to say something else.
‘My name’s Edward, by the way. But I also answer to Eddie.’
‘My name’s Anne, but everyone calls me Nan.’
‘Nan,’ he said, trying it out. ‘Nan. I like it.’
And then he was gone, summoned by some old chap with a huge handlebar moustache who was loudly demanding, ‘Any chance of a drink around here?’
Nan carried the drinks carefully to the table.
‘I thought you were never coming back,’ Ilaria said. ‘Was he flirting with you? Did he ask you out on a date?’
‘No,’ Nan said. ‘Well, not exactly.’
She tried to downplay the significance of her exchange with Eddie at the bar, but already she was thinking about what she would wear the following evening and how she would apply layer after layer of thick black mascara that would lengthen her eyelashes and make her blue eyes look even bluer. She would ask Ilaria, who had learned a thing or two from her hairdresser sister, to do her hair again, the way she did it last week when they went to the disco down on Kensington High Street, piling it up on her head in such a way that when they were dancing some of it became loose and tumbled down in dark brown tresses to her shoulders. She remembered how she felt that night: pretty, beautiful even; she felt that for the first time in her life as she threw herself into the beat of Donna Summer singing ‘I Feel Love’.
Ilaria teased her about Eddie as they walked back to the hostel. ‘You like him,’ she said in a sing-song voice. ‘I think you will want me to leave the window open for you tomorrow night. Or maybe you will sleep somewhere else . . .’
Ilaria shared a room on the ground floor with another other Italian girl. When any of the girls were planning to stay out beyond the curfew, they told Ilaria and her roommate, and they would open the big window in their room so that the latecomers could climb in and sneak back to their rooms.
‘Don’t be silly! He’s going to be working. And, anyway, you’re coming with me, because I’m not going on my own,’ Nan said. She was doing her best to sound nonchalant, as if going back to the pub the following evening would be just something amusing to do, as if she couldn’t really care less. Secretly, though, she was building up a story in which something would happen between her and Eddie.
At that moment, Chris made a brief appearance in her mind and she squirmed.
Oh, why does it have to be so complicated?
We file through the house into a large room at the back. There are French doors, beyond which I can see one of those modern urban outside spaces that, by dint of a few potted plants placed here and there on a paved surface, are called gardens.
Some of my anxiety falls away now, because I recognise nothing about this room or the instead-of-a-garden garden beyond it. The house has changed beyond recognition – at least this part of it has; the original kitchen has been extended and modernised. That we are all standing in it is a coincidence, no more than that. What happened outside, as I walked along the passageway towards the house, was my imagination running away with itself.
But even as I reassure myself, I begin to wonder again how Ben and Marie-Laure have come to live here. To my knowledge, Ben is still working full time as an architect and painting in his spare time. But this house must have cost a fortune and, even with Ben’s architectural know-how, the refurbishment must have been expensive too. Perhaps Marie-Laure also has a job that pays good money. I feel uneasy, though. Of all the houses in London, how does Ben come to be here? How can it be just coincidence?
I’m deep in thought as Arnaud hands me a glass of white wine. I take the glass without thinking and look at it in confusion.
‘If you are wondering whether it is one of my wines, I am afraid that it is not,’ he says. ‘We produce only red.’
‘Our wines, chéri,’ Alice interrupts.
Just as I begin to register the fact that my son’s future in-laws are wine producers, Alice manoeuvres me away from Arnaud and we stand by the French doors. ‘My darling husband is a typical man. He’s happy to take all the credit when I’m the one who turned our business into a force to be reckoned with.’
She clinks her glass against mine.
‘I . . . I’m sorry, but I don’t drink,’ I say apologetically. ‘I hope you don’t mind . . .’
Alice drains her glass and then takes the one I am holding so awkwardly. She raises it to her lips and sips.
‘You don’t drink wine or you don’t drink any alcohol at all?’
‘I don’t drink at all,’ I say.
She gives me a quizzical look and I feel obliged to give an explanation.
‘It just . . . doesn’t agree with me.’
‘Such a shame. Your son is marrying into a wine-producing family and you won’t be able to enjoy the obvious benefits.’
I don’t want to discuss my teetotalism, so I tell Alice that her English is incredibly good.
‘That’s because I am English!’ she exclaims with a lifting of her eyebrows, as if astonished by my failure to realise that she wasn’t born in France. ‘Oh, I know I’ve picked up a lot of French quirks in my accent and even sometimes in my grammar over the years, and these days I seem to think mostly in French, but I’m as English as you are. I’m a Manchester girl.’
‘How – how did —’
‘How did I end up married to Arnaud? When I was eighteen, I went to work for Arnaud’s family as an au pair. Not looking after Arnaud himself, obviously – he has a much younger sister and I was employed to give her conversation practice in English. It was only supposed to be for the summer and then I would go to university back in England. But one thing led to another and, well, here we all are.’
I look across the room at Arnaud, who’s talking to Ben and Marie-Laure. Measured against his wife, he seems so bland.
‘We have become very fond of Ben,’ she says softly, the French inflexions returning to her voice. ‘We love him.’
‘Thank you,’ I say, my voice heavy with emotion and gratitude.
‘And we hope you will love Marie-Laure. She really is a good girl. And she’ll be a wonderful wife and mother.’
I feel a surge of emotion as I try to deal with the knowledge that Ben has a new family; that he is buying into a package consisting not only of the woman he loves but her parents too. Where do I fit in? Do I even have a place in the hierarchy of his nearest and dearest? I try to stop the tears that blur my vision but I’m only partly successful.
Alice puts her arms around me and holds me close for a moment.
‘I’m sorry,’ I mumble into her shoulder. ‘It’s all been a bit much for me.’
When she releases me and I straighten up, I become aware that the room has gone quiet. Ben, Marie-Laure and Arnaud are staring at us. Marie-Laure and Arnaud are wearing expressions of curious concern. But when I look into Ben’s eyes I can’t read them. What is he thinking?
Marie-Laure comes over, Ben in tow, and Alice steps back. I wish Marie-Laure would leave Ben with me and go away, but she hovers, beaming, looking from me to Ben and back again to me.
I can’t take my eyes off Ben. He seems different, older. Maybe it’s the light, but I think I can see thin blazes of grey running through his brown hair. I feel angry and sad at the same time for having been denied these two years during which the first signs of his mortality, those grey hairs, have appeared. How much of his life have I missed? Marie-Laure is just one part of it.
‘It’s lovely to see you, Ben,’ I say.
Inside, I’m horrified to hear myself address my own son as if he were a distant relative or an acquaintance I hardly know. I’m hoping that he won’t hear in my voice the nervousness I feel.
‘And it’s wonderful to meet Marie-Laure,’ I add quickly, firmly, with a smile flashed in her direction. I know I may need to rely on her to help me rebuild my relationship with my son and I notice that the moment I mention her name his eyes seem to become brighter.
‘It’s . . . nice to see you too,’ he says.
Nice. I digest this word in the silence that lasts a few seconds.
He looks away to meet Marie-Laure’s eyes for a moment and when he looks at me again, he says, ‘You look well.’
Oh, Ben, are we doomed to talk to each other like strangers for ever?
It’s Marie-Laure who comes to the rescue. There won’t be any awkward silences while she’s in full flow.
‘I am sure you would like to know how we met,’ she says.
I smile and my head nods up and down in gratitude.
‘Very much,’ I say truthfully. I really do want to know how they met.
‘It’s such a romantic story. My godfather asked Ben to paint me! So, I sat for him many times and, as you say in England, one thing led to another and – voilà! – we are getting married!’
She laughs her tinkling, trilling laugh.
Marie-Laure is in her element now. ‘I knew at once,’ she declares. ‘Bouff!’ She clicks her fingers. ‘Ben did too but he was so professional.’ She leans towards me in a conspiratorial way and says, her mouth forming a little pout, ‘He was too professional. It took me a long time – two whole weeks – to get him to admit that he was feeling the same.’
I wait for Ben to speak, to add his contribution to the story, but he stands quietly, giving her free rein to tell me the most intimate details of their romance. I don’t want to hear them. My gratitude for her timely intervention is rapidly turning into annoyance. Has she no sense of propriety? She may be about to marry my son but I am meeting her for the first time and I am uncomfortable with the way she is speaking about him. And I can’t understand why Ben is listening to this and not saying a word, not stopping this girl from embarrassing all of us. But I realise with a jolt that he really must love her.
‘I’d very much like to see the painting,’ I say. ‘I mean, the painting that brought you together.’
‘It’s upstairs. I can show it to you very quickly,’ Marie-Laure says.
But Ben, looking even more uncomfortable now than at the beginning of our conversation, glances at his watch and says there isn’t time.
‘We should go to the restaurant. It’s not far but we should leave now,’ he tells us firmly.
He helps me into my coat, a small gesture that fills me with a mixture of joy and relief. We leave the house and I cast my eyes around, wondering whether he is there, lurking somewhere in the darkness. I see no one, hear no one. But the feeling of being watched pervades me. Maybe I really am going mad. For a long time, even before Chris died, I had a sense of a presence I could neither see nor hear. Chris tried to be reassuring, but he was worried that I was becoming increasingly unable to cope with the lies I had told. He tried to persuade me that it would be best for my mental health and, therefore, for all of us if I told the truth. The truth. Why do people hold up The Truth as something pure, something good and honourable? My truth is nothing like that; it’s ugly and violent and shameful and no good can come of telling it.
We walk through the passageway on to Pembridge Road and then turn left into a curving street of tall white Victorian villas. Chepstow Crescent, another name that rings bells loudly. On the other side of Pembridge Road is the entrance to the square where the hostel had been; I wonder whether it still exists.
It hadn’t been my choice to live there. My parents found it through the vicar, who called some clerics he knew in London and asked them whether they could recommend a student hostel that would be suitable for a young woman of good moral character.
I know now that I should have stayed there instead of moving to Paradise Place.
Even with that thought, I’m starting to feel a bit more relaxed. I reassure myself that Ben and I will find our way back to each other slowly but surely. That the strange experience I had earlier was all in my mind, the result of the shock of discovering that I was back in the part of London from which I had fled all those years ago. That my son and his fiancée have ended up living in Paradise Place is no more than a bizarre coincidence.
We’re in Ledbury Road now, but it’s not the slightly shabby street I remember. The white stucco on the houses looks fresh and there are upmarket designer boutiques on either side of the road. We turn into Westbourne Grove: more shops and boutiques. We come to a halt outside what looks like a very upmarket restaurant. I’m on the verge of exclaiming that everything is so different from what I remember, but I stop myself in time. They don’t know about those months I spent in London. Not even my son knows. I’ve made sure of that.
As we enter the restaurant, Ben’s phone rings and he steps back outside to answer it. Inside, Marie-Laure takes command of the seating. I count six chairs, wondering whether the restaurant has made a mistake or whether someone else will join us. But even as my nervousness begins to return, two waiters remove the sixth place-setting and chair. Ben comes in and says something to Marie-Laure and then to Alice and Arnaud.
‘Nan, would you like to sit between Ben and my mother?’ Marie-Laure says, and I smile gratefully at her.
It’s a while before the group buzz dissipates. There’s a lot of talk about the restaurant’s starry reputation and whether to go for the tasting menu without the recommended wines or for the tasting menu with the wines. Alice weighs in with a suggestion – although it sounds more like an order – that we should leave everything, including the wine, to the restaurant. Everyone murmurs agreement except me – I don’t dare say a word. This meal is going to cost a fortune.
‘We were going to be six,’ Marie-Laure tells me as she passes her menu to the waiter. ‘My godfather insisted on taking us here but unfortunately he has had to go out of London on urgent business.’
‘So bloody typical of him,’ Alice says. ‘I hope he’s given them the number of his credit card to cover the bill.’
‘Alice!’ Arnaud says, clearly embarrassed.
‘Don’t worry, Alice, it’s all been taken care of,’ Ben says. He turns to me. ‘It sounds quite old-fashioned but Marie-Laure’s godfather is, effectively, my patron. If it hadn’t been for him buying my stuff, I doubt I would have been able to make it as a painter, because it’s thanks to him my name is getting around. And I wouldn’t have met Marie-Laure.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Marie-Laure interjects. ‘You had your paintings in Lucinda’s gallery already, so your name was getting around. And I think we would have found each other even if we had not been introduced because it is very clear to me that we are meant to be together.’
‘It’s very clear to me, too,’ Ben says, reaching across the table to touch her hand. Their eyes lock together and I look into both of their faces, forced by the obvious chemistry between them to acknowledge that something strong and unbreakable has bound them together.
At this, Arnaud asks us to raise our glasses to the happy couple. I have questions buzzing around in my head and churning up my guts, but I’m not going to ask them tonight. I’m torn between wanting to know more about this godfather of Marie-Laure’s who has yet to materialise and my fear that I will learn something I don’t want to know. I’ve convinced myself that what happened in Paradise Place as I made my way towards the house was some kind of emotionally induced apparition. Now I’m feeling less sure.
It was a painting that led me to her.
For years, I had no idea where she was. And, as I’m sure anyone would understand on learning the extent to which I suffered, and for a very long time, I had every reason to look for her. I knew little about her beyond the fact that she came from Yorkshire. I rather suspect I never got around to asking her where exactly her family lived, but it’s also possible that this was one of the pieces of information that was lost irretrievably when she tried to kill me. I can still see the expression on her face as she brought the poker down towards me and I still find it hard to describe it. Fearful, furious, ugly. I had misread her completely.
When Eddie brought her to see the room, I saw a young and unsophisticated girl. She was a pretty little thing, I remember thinking. She might even become a beauty once her cheeks, which made me think of a pair of early autumn apples, lost their plumpness. She didn’t conform to my type. She was on the short side, no more than five-three or -four, and a brunette. I’ve always liked blondes, the taller the better. Nevertheless, she had some quality I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and I had no hesitation about taking her on as a tenant. It was obvious to me on that very first visit that she found me attractive. I also suspected that Eddie was either already involved with her or working up to it. So, having no wish to create tension among the three of us, I decided immediately that Nan Smith was off-limits.
There was also the matter of my other girlfriends. It was difficult enough making sure they didn’t encounter one another as they filed in and out of the house; I didn’t need the complications that would surely result from sleeping with someone, regardless of how enticing she might be, who lived in the room above mine.
Nevertheless, once she moved in, I found it increasingly difficult to ignore her charms. She was like a sponge, eager to soak up every experience that living in London, and in what she clearly saw as a Bohemian house, could bring. And, as she adapted to London and the kind of freedom that had not previously been available to her, I saw something else: a determination to get what she wanted and discard what she didn’t want. I saw it in the way she dealt with Eddie, playing him like a yo-yo, reeling him in and then pushing him away. I saw it in the way she behaved after she split up with her boyfriend, miserable one minute and then looking at me as if she wanted to jump straight into bed with me the next.
It was, I realised only much later, inevitable that something would happen between us. But it was unfortunate that what did happen turned into something horrific that took away two years of my life and left me permanently scarred.
When I eventually recovered and was in a position to look for her, all I had was her surname. There was no internet in those days, only telephone books and directory inquiries and I had no idea what her father’s first name was. I went to the Post Office and asked for the Yorkshire directories. Of course, there were countless listings under the name Smith. I tried to remember whether she had mentioned a town or village; that would have narrowed things down somewhat. But I couldn’t recall the name of a single place she had mentioned.
So I gave up and tried to get on with my life. Nevertheless, my anger and need for revenge remained inside me, close enough to the surface that when I became aware many years later of the existence of such things as the internet and Facebook, I tried searching for her. I found plenty of women called Nan Smith but she wasn’t among them. She had no online presence whatsoever. And so I gave up again.
And then I came across the painting. I was persuaded by a gallery-owner friend with a reputation for launching the careers of many big-name artists that her latest protégé was the real thing and that I should consider buying a couple of his paintings before he became expensive. It would be a very good investment, she said. Lucinda knew her stuff and was particularly good at spotting up-and-coming talent; she saw it as her mission. I had taken her advice in the past, buying several paintings from her over the years and, once their value had risen, had subsequently resold them through her for quite a profit.
I wasn’t particularly looking to invest in art at that particular time, but I reckoned that it would do no harm to have a look at these paintings she was so keen for me to see. I also had an ulterior motive. Lucinda, an extremely attractive woman, was in the middle of a divorce from her American banker husband and I was working up towards a spot of leg-over with her. I decided that I would turn up at her gallery in Cork Street, check out her up-and-coming paint-thrower but avoid committing myself to a purchase. I would then suggest dinner around the corner at Cecconi’s, after which she would be more than happy to hop into a taxi with me for some further fun at my place.
Lucinda had six paintings to show me and as soon as I laid eyes on the first, I knew she was right. This Ben Brown had something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on whatever it was, because he wasn’t doing anything remarkable or different – not to my eye, at least. If anything, his paintings were rather on the old-fashioned side: landscapes in which the sky was a colour you might expect a sky to be and the grass green and not some bilious shade of yellow or orange or God knows what. Although they were landscapes, they had an architectural quality to them. They were good. They were very, very good.
I examined each of them in turn and then came to an unexpected portrait of a woman. I don’t particularly like portraits unless they’re of my own ancestors, and even then I would think twice about handing over good money for one, especially one by a virtually unknown artist. But there was something about this one that drew me in. I stared at it for a long time, trying to make sense of the ripple I felt in my stomach. It didn’t particularly look like her, but perhaps it transmitted something of her that my subconscious picked up. It was only when I leaned forward and saw the title on the label that I knew for certain that I had finally found her.
I could barely contain my excitement, which, happily, Lucinda took to be related entirely to the talent of her new artist.
‘Tell me about this fellow,’ I said. ‘Where he’s from, where he trained.’
‘He’s from Yorkshire,’ she said. ‘He didn’t actually go to art college. He has quite a good career as . . .’
I stopped listening at that point. I didn’t care what he had done for a living before becoming a painter or whether he still had a full-time job. The most important thing was that he had painted a portrait of a woman called Nan – my Nan. And he was from Yorkshire.
‘I’ll take them,’ I said, pulling out my chequebook.
‘All six?’ Lucinda asked, doing her best to sound as nonchalant and breezy as if I was buying a few postcards and not six paintings that were probably overpriced. I hadn’t even tried to bargain with her.
‘All six. And I’m interested in anything else of his you can get.’
‘He’s not madly prolific, but I can ask him.’
She must have thought all her Christmases had come at once.
We never made it to Cecconi’s. Lucinda, in a state of high excitement over the amount of money I was handing over to her with hardly a thought and anticipating further sales, brought out a bottle of champagne she kept in a fridge for such occasions. And . . . well, suffice it to say that we brought the evening to a highly satisfying climax.
Did Eddie fancy her or not? He hadn’t tried to kiss her or even touch her. He had made no attempt to hold her hand, despite her having given him plenty of opportunities. Yet she felt there was something developing between them. The question was what exactly? Several weeks had passed since the night he had chatted her up in the pub and they were spending a lot of time together when she wasn’t at the school and he wasn’t working, which was usually during the day because he worked behind the bar most evenings.
They went for walks around Holland Park, stopping to feed the squirrels or join the small groups of people who watched enthralled when one of the peacocks spread its fan. They usually stopped at the little café, taking their drinks outside to the tables that sat just out of sight of the Dutch garden.
He had told her a little bit about himself, but not very much. He was from a place in Norfolk that was so tiny it barely qualified as a village, through it had two pubs. One of the pubs had been in his family for years.
‘Is that where you learned how to pull pints?’ Nan asked.
‘Yeah. My dad had me and my sister helping out behind the bar of The Florin as soon as we were tall enough to reach the pumps.’
‘Are you going to take over when your dad retires?’
‘No way. It’s the middle of nowhere and there’s a big world out there that I wouldn’t mind seeing. Anyway, if my dad doesn’t sell it, he’ll probably give it to Ellen. My sister. She’s practically running it now.’
‘You didn’t fancy university, then?’
‘I tried it. I did a couple of years in Norwich but – well, I wasn’t getting anything out of it, so I dropped out.’
‘What were you studying?’
‘History. But I didn’t want to be a teacher and what else would that qualify me for? Anyway, that’s all in the past and I’m fed up of the past. It’s the future I’m interested in.’
She asked him what kind of future he was planning.
‘Planning? I’m not planning anything. I’m going to take things as they come. You know that saying, the best-laid plans of mice and men? I can’t remember the rest of it but the meaning is that if you make plans you can be sure they’ll go wrong.’
Nan wondered whether he had already seen his plans founder. Maybe he had had some big love affair that had left him hurt and disappointed and that was why he wasn’t in a rush to take things further with her. Or maybe he just liked to take things slowly. He certainly wasn’t shy; it was he who had chatted her up that time in the pub, not the other way around. Or maybe he just liked her platonically and didn’t fancy her at all, though she had a feeling that this wasn’t the case.
Anyway, Eddie’s slowness suited her fine, because, deep down, she was beginning to understand that the real romance she was experiencing was with herself, the discovery of her own power. She was experimenting with new ways of wearing clothes and with the way she looked. She could feel herself becoming more confident.
She complained to Eddie about the ridiculously early curfew at the hostel and he laughed and said, ‘It will keep you out of trouble.’ But one Sunday, when the pub was closed for the afternoon and they were walking around Holland Park, he told her there was a room going in the house where he lived, just around the corner. It was thirteen pounds a week and included electricity and gas.
Her initial excitement on hearing this dribbled away as she began to calculate what leaving the hostel would mean. The rent Eddie had mentioned was two pounds less than she was paying now. But for those extra two pounds she got breakfast and dinner every day at the hostel, even at weekends. How would she cover the additional cost of food? She would have to ask her parents for more money. She would have to explain to them why she was leaving the hostel and they wouldn’t like it. And what would she say to Chris? He would want to know more about who else was living in the house and she would have to tell him that she knew this person called Eddie and then Chris would probably wonder why she hadn’t mentioned Eddie until now.
‘I’m not sure,’ Nan said. ‘I mean, I’m not sure I’m ready for a move from the hostel yet.’
‘Why don’t you have a look at the room? There’s no harm in seeing it. You might hate it anyway,’ Eddie said. He looked at his watch. ‘You can see it now, if you like. I’ve still got time before the pub opens again.’
Eddie was right; there was no harm in seeing the room. She was beginning to find the hostel claustrophobic. She had even suggested to Ilaria that they might look for a flat to share, but Ilaria wasn’t interested because it would cost too much. In any case, Ilaria would be going back to Italy for good the following summer.
‘All right. Let’s go, then,’ Nan said, and she noticed that Eddie looked quite pleased. She wasn’t sure what moving into Eddie’s house might mean, whether it suggested that he wanted their friendship to develop into something more intimate or whether it showed that he thought of her just as a friend. But there was no point in speculating at this point, especially when uppermost in her thoughts right now was the prospect of living in a real house and not in an all-female student hostel run by nuns.
The house was only a few minutes’ walk from the pub, just off Pembridge Road. She had known roughly where Eddie lived – ‘up the road’ was how he had put it – but she hadn’t been there, mainly because he hadn’t actually invited her. Funny, she thought now, how she had never noticed the odd little passageway that led to Paradise Place. Maybe that was because it was set at a peculiar angle and because it was so unexpected. She and Eddie walked along the narrow-cobbled lane that was bordered on either side by high walls. Seconds later, they emerged into a small square – except that it wasn’t quite a square because there were houses only on three sides, two facing the passageway and one on either side. It was more like a courtyard, in which the cobbles had given way to uneven flagstones.
‘Oh! This is gorgeous!’
Eddie smiled. ‘It’s quiet, anyway. The people living in the other houses are all ancient. You don’t hear a peep from them. You can hear a pin drop once you leave the main road. Here we are, it’s this one,’ he said, pointing to the house to the right.
As she walked across the flagstones she felt as if she was travelling back several centuries.
These houses were different from the other big and mostly white houses and villas that were typical of this part of Notting Hill. They were tall – she counted three storeys – but narrow and made of small dark red bricks that seemed to crowd and press into one another.
Eddie turned a key in the lock and opened the green door into a dark-red-and-white tiled hallway.
‘Hang on, I’ll see if Hugo’s here. He owns the house.’
Eddie left her in the hallway and came back almost immediately, followed by the best-looking man she had ever seen.
She had never met anyone called Hugo before. It was the kind of name you would expect to find in a romantic novel set in the Middle Ages. She had assumed Eddie’s landlord was someone quite a lot older, because of the fact that he owned a house. But this man was young, probably twenty-four or twenty-five at the very most.
‘Hello,’ he said.
His voice made her think of James Mason, her mother’s favourite actor, but it was slightly deeper, slightly lazier. It was gorgeous and it made her go weak at the knees. The way he said hello was the most seductive sound she had ever heard, as if on the way up from his chest it had picked up some huskiness from his throat. He was gorgeous, with dark eyes and dark, slightly untidy hair that was neither short nor long. He looked like a poet. He was wearing a loose, collarless white shirt; it was the kind of shirt her grandfather would have worn, but on Hugo it looked romantic. Under his light-grey linen trousers he was barefoot, and she couldn’t help but stare at his long toes. A blush stole uncomfortably on to her cheeks, and she raised her hand to her face and then to her hair, as if brushing away a stray lock.
‘Nan,’ she croaked, just about able to speak, the flame in her cheeks burning even more intensely under his appraising gaze.
‘Why don’t you take Nan upstairs and show her the room, Eddie, and I’ll make a pot of tea? Or perhaps Nan would like a glass of wine?’
He was looking directly at her now and she was burning in the warmth of the look, mesmerised by the way his mouth moved and the way he said her name, the a vowel lengthened slightly as if he was playing with it, savouring it. She could watch and listen to him for ever.
He inclined his head to one side, lifted his eyebrows slightly, and she realised he was waiting for her to answer.
‘Oh, thanks. I’d love a glass of wine,’ she said, adding quickly, ‘But only if you have a bottle open already.’
Hugo smiled. ‘There’s always a bottle of wine open in this house.’
Nan followed Eddie to the stairs.
The room was at the top of the house. The walls were painted turquoise and the floorboards were stained dark brown, a startling and wonderful colour scheme she could never have imagined might work, despite her love of paint and colour. The ceiling was low and the room was on the small side, but it was bigger than her room at the hostel. She noticed that the bed was big too, a double. She had never slept in a double bed before. Not since she was a child and had crept into her parents’ bed when she had nightmares. The bed had been stripped and she wondered whether she would have to buy sheets and pillowcases and a bedspread or quilt if she took the room.
As if reading her thoughts, Eddie gestured behind him with his thumb. ‘There’s a big cupboard out on the landing. Maybe you saw it. That’s where the sheets and blankets and things are kept.’
She put her hand on the mattress and pressed. It was surprisingly firm. Much better than the one at the hostel and heaps better than her old mattress at home, which had an old door underneath it to stop it sinking into the loose metal springs of the ancient iron bedstead.
At the hostel, storage had been limited to a wardrobe. Here, there was not only a wardrobe and a bedside table but also a big chest of drawers. Idly, she opened the drawers one by one. She almost missed the photograph, which was partly concealed under the base of a lamp. It was a shot taken from a distance, but Nan could see that the girl was very attractive, with long fair hair.
‘Who’s this?’ she asked.
‘Oh,’ Eddie said. He looked at it and Nan noticed that he was frowning. ‘It’s just the girl who had your room before. Do you want to come next door and see my room? There’s just the two of us up here. Hugo’s room is on the first floor. That’s where the bathroom is.’
She peeked into Eddie’s room. It had the same stained floorboards, but the walls were red, not turquoise; a deep, dark red.
‘The girl who had my room before . . .’ she began, and she realised that she had said my room, that she had already made up her mind. ‘Was she here for long?’
‘I can’t really remember how long she was here,’ he said. ‘Do you think you’ll take the room?’
‘I think so . . . yes, I will.’
Back downstairs, Hugo was removing the cork from a bottle of red wine in the kitchen. His mouth widened into a broad smile as Nan and Eddie approached and he poured the wine into the biggest wine glasses Nan had ever seen. The three of them took their glasses and Nan and Eddie followed Hugo into a room at the front of the house, where he invited them to sit down on old but rather grand sofas. The walls were painted green and covered in framed landscapes and portraits that were obviously old.
Nan had never been in a house like this, a room like this. It wasn’t a big house, but everything about it spoke of old money and privilege. It made her think of those stately homes whose aristocratic owners charged ordinary people like herself and her parents money for the privilege of seeing inside them.
She wondered whether the paintings were what her parents would call ‘real’ and not just copies, but she couldn’t really ask Hugo that.
While Nan had been looking around the room, Hugo had put on a record. He told her that the music had been written in the early seventeenth century for the Sistine Chapel in Rome by a composer called Allegri.
Nan listened, entranced by the soaring voices.
‘It’s wonderful,’ she said. She had never heard anything like this.
Hugo smiled, a beautiful, wide, sensual smile that made her body melt.
‘It is, isn’t it? In fact, it’s so wonderful that the Vatican wouldn’t let it be performed or published anywhere else. It’s Mozart we have to thank for the fact that we can hear it now. He heard it just once and was able to write it down,’ he said. ‘Well, that’s how the story goes. Whether it’s true is another question entirely.’
She was listening to him so intently that she noticed only in the nick of time that she was holding her glass at a precarious angle. She hoped to God she hadn’t spilt any of the wine on the sofa or on the Persian rug, which looked as if it might be very old and valuable.
Hugo didn’t appear to have noticed her near miss with the wine. He was still talking about the music.
‘I would never describe myself as religious but I’m inclined to think that if there is a heaven beyond the clouds, there must be music like this in it,’ he said. ‘Or, to put it another way, if there’s proof of the existence of God it has to be this.’
There was something slightly blasphemous about this, Nan thought, wondering what her parents would say if they knew she was participating in a conversation that mentioned God in such a light way.
But she realised that she didn’t actually care what her parents would think. She was listening to what Hugo was saying, but she was also hearing the way the sound of his voice was somehow in harmony with this strange and glorious music that seemed to come from another dimension, seeping into every conscious part of her.
Her eyes drifted again to the paintings that covered the walls in the room, several smallish landscapes and a couple of big portraits. Yes, they were ‘real’ paintings, oils and watercolours, not the cheap prints of girls with jet-black hair and huge eyes and single tears falling from the eyes that her mother was partial to.
‘Nan’s an art student,’ Eddie said.
‘Ah. Where are you studying?’ Hugo asked.
‘Byam Shaw,’ she said proudly.
Hugo lifted his eyebrows in recognition. Then he went back to the record player, removed the Miserere and put it back in its sleeve, and selected another record which he placed on the turntable.
‘You’ll know this then,’ he said. And then, he added quickly, ‘Or perhaps not.’
She recognised the voice immediately. It was Kathleen Ferrier, beloved of her parents and whose record of folk songs they played every Sunday evening. She knew every song on that record and could sing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ in her sleep, but she didn’t know this one.
As she listened, she felt her heart turn heavy with sadness for everything she had left behind and, at the same time, with longing for what she had yet to know. She felt her body infused with desire for Hugo. He is perfect, she thought to herself.
‘It’s . . . so beautiful,’ she said quietly when the song ended. She could barely put words together, so strong were the emotions that coursed through her.
Hugo turned off the record player and handed her the sleeve, which showed a Pre-Raphaelite painting she should probably have known but didn’t recognise.
‘“Silent Noon”, words by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, music by Ralph Vaughan Williams, painting by Byam Shaw,’ Hugo said. ‘You can see the painting at Leighton House. Full of Pre-Raphaelite stuff, if you like that sort of thing. I do happen to like it, but it’s not to everyone’s taste. You know where it is, don’t you? You can walk down through Holland Park, but do check that it’s open.’
Hugo had clearly assumed that she would want to take the room. She waited for him to explain how the house worked, what the rules were, but he just told her she could move in whenever she was ready. He didn’t even mention the rent.
‘I’ll sort out a key and give it to Eddie for you,’ he said.
Eddie glanced at his watch and said he had better get back to the pub. Nan didn’t get up immediately. The music was still playing and Hugo was still sitting languidly on his sofa. She hadn’t finished her wine either, and she wondered whether Hugo would invite her to stay longer so that she could drink it. She waited for him to issue the invitation, but he didn’t.
She shouldn’t have been surprised, really, she thought, wondering at the same time how she was going to get up from the sofa without looking awkward. He had no interest in prolonging her visit; she was mistaking good manners for something else. Socially, he was well above her. Obviously rolling in money. And so good-looking. He could have anyone he wanted. And he was that bit older, too. Only by a few years, but old enough not to be interested in an eighteen-year-old girl from Yorkshire. He probably saw her as a kid, a country kid lacking any sophistication whatsoever. She wished she had dressed up a bit before the visit to the house, but Eddie had sprung it on her.
Reluctantly, she rose to her feet, said goodbye to Hugo and followed Eddie out of the house. She glanced back several times before they entered the passageway, just in case Hugo might be watching through a window.
‘I love the room,’ she told Eddie eagerly, sweeping away her disappointment at seeing the empty window frames. ‘And the house is fabulous. Does he – Hugo – really own it? What does he do for a living?’
‘It’s his family’s. But I don’t know if it’s his, like, if his name is on the deeds.’
He hadn’t answered her second question so she asked it again.
‘I don’t know what he does,’ Eddie said, a touch of irritation in his voice. ‘I don’t think he does anything very much. He doesn’t need to, anyway. His family has loads of money.’
‘I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so cultured,’ Nan said. ‘He knows so much about art and music and—’
‘Yeah, well, it’s easy to be cultured when you don’t have to work. I’ll remind you of what you said when you complain about him playing bloody Beethoven at full blast at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning when you’re trying to sleep.’
‘Oh, I don’t think I’ll mind,’ she said.
He stopped and gave her an odd look. Then he started walking again.
‘He has a lot of women,’ he said. He threw her another odd, sideways look. ‘Just so you know’
Nan wasn’t sure what to make of what Eddie was telling her. Was he giving her sound advice or was he revealing something else, something about himself? The tone of his voice persuaded her that it was the latter.
He was jealous of her obvious attraction to Hugo.
She felt a slight touch of apprehension about moving into the house. She had given Eddie the impression that she was interested in him. And she had been interested in him but he hadn’t done anything about it. If he had finally woken up to her, it was too late, because now she had seen Hugo. She felt something stir inside her as she remembered the effect Hugo had had on her the moment she had laid eyes on him. Physical, visceral, primitive, like nothing she had ever felt before, and she felt it again now. And, it seemed, Eddie knew it too.
It was only as an afterthought that Chris came into her mind, and that was when she knew she was playing with fire. The flirtation with Eddie had been one thing, but this overwhelming attraction she had for Hugo was different. Was she ready to risk her relationship with Chris? Maybe she should tell Eddie to tell Hugo that she had changed her mind and wasn’t going to take the room after all.
But she knew she wasn’t going to do that. She was going to move into Hugo’s house and suffer the consequences. She wasn’t a child any more. She had come to London not just because she wanted to study art but because she wanted a new life. She wanted excitement and she wanted change and, she began to understand with a mixed sense of guilt and inevitability, Chris might not be part of that change.
She banished these troubling thoughts and her mind shot back to Hugo.
‘You haven’t told me his surname,’ she said.
‘Bennett,’ he said. ‘Hugo Bennett.’
Later, in her room at the hostel, she wrote out his name in swirling letters. Hugo Bennett. And then, even though she knew she was being ridiculously childish and silly, she wrote Hugo and Nan Bennett. Mrs Hugo Bennett.
We leave the restaurant and walk back towards Paradise Place, Alice and Marie-Laure talking enthusiastically about the food and Arnaud throwing in the occasional comment. Ben and I follow quietly. He’s a lot more relaxed than he was at the beginning of the evening. I manage to get him to ease back well behind the others and tell him how lovely Marie-Laure is and how glad I am that he has found her.
His face lights up and I know for certain that my route back into his heart is through Marie-Laure.
‘I’ve never met anyone like her. She’s beautiful and she’s kind and clever – you know she works for a human rights charity? – and I knew – I don’t know how – but I knew the moment I saw her that I was going to marry her. This is going to sound crazy, but it was as if I’d come home.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘I wish Dad could have met her.’
‘I wish that too,’ I say. ‘Look, Ben, about Dad and . . . and everything . . . I’m trying to find a way to talk to you about it, but I need to get my head around it all. I know you’ll think I’ve had enough time to think about it, but something has happened . . . that I need to get to grips with. Can you bear with me for just a little bit longer? Please?’
‘What do you mean, something happened? What happened?’
‘I . . . I can’t really talk about it. Not yet.’
He frowns. ‘Is it something to do with your health?’
‘No, no, honestly, it’s not a health thing. But it’s . . .’ I trail off, searching for the words that will make my excuse not to talk more plausible.
‘You’re doing it again,’ Ben says. His voice sounds weary. ‘Clamming up. It’s what you’ve always done. You did it to Dad and you did it to me and you’re still doing it. Jesus!’
‘Ben, I . . . I’m sorry. I really am. I promise things will be different. But, please, just let me have a little bit longer.’
‘How long is a little bit longer?’
‘A few days? Please? I can’t tell you why just now, but give me just a little more time. I promise.’
He shrugs, says nothing.
There are only inches of space between us as we walk side by side but our short conversation has driven us so far apart that those few inches seem to have turned into a wide, deep chasm.
I can’t bear this silence. I need to get him to talk again, so I ask him about the wedding. When I first opened the invitation, the fact that my son was getting married to someone I didn’t know knocked me for six. Then something else sprang out at me, the name of the venue, Leighton House, but I managed to dismiss it as a coincidence. It was simply a venue, and a venue probably relevant to Ben in that a well-known Victorian painter had lived there. After everything that has happened in the past few hours, though, I can’t help wondering whether it’s more than a coincidence.
I think about that first time I went to Leighton House. The memory of it is still as vivid as the visit itself. It was more of a pilgrimage than a visit, a need to see a painting that I would never have wanted to see had I not been beguiled by Hugo.
The memory is strong now of that dark and rainy afternoon. I walked down there through the park and by the time I reached what looked like a dull Victorian mausoleum I was soaked through and almost ready to turn around and go back to the hostel. But when I went inside, I was captivated by the extraordinary tiles and fountain and golden dome of the Arab Hall. I felt that day as if I was in Damascus or Baghdad rather than in a big old house in a quiet street in Kensington. But I hadn’t gone there simply out of curiosity. I wasn’t a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites. I just wanted to see the Byam Shaw painting, Silent Noon, because Hugo had told me I should see it.
And I see it now in my mind. The girl lying on the grass in her voluminous yellow-green dress, her auburn hair spread out around and behind her head, an apple in her hand. And gazing at her, the young man with his mop of dark, dark hair, propped up on the elbow of his right arm, a lyre in his left. And I hear the emotive voice of Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Silent Noon’.
A couple of days after that first visit to Leighton House, just before I moved into Paradise Place, I bought a packet of henna and Ilaria put it on my hair.
Ben has no idea that I know Leighton House like the back of my hand, so I mention it now, telling him I looked it up on the internet.
‘It looks wonderful. Did you choose it because of it being an art museum?’
But it turns out that, just like the expensive restaurant, Leighton House is primarily the choice of Marie-Laure’s godfather, who is also insisting on paying for the reception.
I pick up a hint of embarrassment in Ben’s voice as he tells me this.
‘I’d rather just go down to the nearest registry office and then have a small lunch at a decent restaurant,’ he says. ‘But Hugo is insisting on nothing but the best for his only goddaughter and Alice and Arnaud are happy to go along with it because they’re not having to pay.’
Hugo! I feel unsteady, as if I might topple over. So I hadn’t been wrong. I hadn’t imagined what happened in the passageway. All through the evening, I had tried to convince myself that my imagination had been working overtime. I had hoped no one would say his name so that I could continue to convince myself that my nervousness about seeing Ben again and finding myself in front of Paradise Place had conjured Hugo up. And even now, as I hear Ben say his name, I want to think I have misheard him. But there was no mistaking that voice, and there’s no mistaking it now as I hear it in my head.
I should feel relief, because if it’s the same Hugo, it means I didn’t kill him.
I’m not a murderer.
And yet I feel no relief, only a deepening fear.
‘Are you all right?’ Ben asks. ‘You’re as white as a sheet. You are ill, aren’t you? Tell me the truth.’
‘No, I’m not ill. Honestly, I’m fine. It’s just all the excitement. You know, meeting Marie-Laure and her parents, see