with a tapestry seat featuring two kittens that Will had felt obliged to buy at a jumble sale in aid of a cancer charity. Whenever I looked at it, it looked back reproachfully: first, because I hated it, second, because I had not done anything with it.

In other worlds, into which I occasionally peered, mainly in Chelsea and the Shires, interior decoration was taken more seriously. There, the houses were the frames for rich, rare materials that breathed expense. The walls gleamed with the sludge of authentic paints and no one would dare to dump into those rooms a stool with tapestry kittens. Our house was plain, straightforward fare. (Economical, argued Will, with the grin that, when I first married him, made my heart soar.) A last-minute stab at Victorian Gothic, ugly in places, painted in colours from the local DIY store, it was utilitarian and solid. I had never loved it, never sought to pretty it up or make it smart. We jogged along, the house and I.

A departing backbencher’s wife, Amy Greene, had once lectured me on economy. In order to survive (the words had dropped from her defeated-looking mouth), it is necessary to be economical with expectation. I had not discussed with her – or, for that matter, with Will – the little economies of spirit that creep into the everyday. They were whisked out of sight and never mentioned.

I pulled the bedspread straight. That, at least, was lovely. A traditional American quilt, sent by my mother, Sally, it was aged and faded, sewn with exquisite stitches and care. That never failed to delight.

Down in the kitchen Mannochie was making a late tea and Will was talking on the phone. On Sunday mornings, Mannochie often joined us for breakfast, tiptoeing into the house, and when I came down, still sleep-mussed, to the kitchen, it was to the inviting smell of frying bacon. It was no surprise, then, when he offered me cake from my own tin. ‘Brigitte made it specially for you two,’ I said. Brigitte was our au-pair-cum-housekeeper for the summer. I cut two slices and dropped the knife into the sink, well out of reach. I watched Mannochie eat, and imagined how the sugary crumbs would dissolve on his tongue.

‘How’s your son?’ I asked.

Mannochie failed to repress his smile. ‘Turning out to be a gymnast. And the fastest runner in the school.’

Information on the Mannochie home-life was not often released, even after the unexpected late marriage, which had produced a pallid, thoughtful child who fetched up, occasionally, at our house to be fed fish fingers at the kitchen table.

Will put down the phone. ‘Do you think Matt Smith will do a good job? Pearl Veriker’s a hard act to follow.’

A suggestion of humour softened Mannochie’s features. ‘He’s keen on putting forward women and minorities.’

I looked at Will. ‘You’d better watch it.’

Will sent me his private signal-a tiny lift of the eyebrows – which meant: ‘Share the joke.’ Or ‘You’re right.’ Or ‘Thank you.’ Or sometimes all three.

After Mannochie had driven off to scoop up Mrs Mannochie from the swimming-baths, Will retired to his study to work on the red boxes. I moved around the kitchen, checking, making lists, when the sound of raised voices issued from Meg’s side of the house.

Will’s sister had lived with us in the Stanwinton house for a long time now and there had been plenty of opportunity to argue about most things, including what we meant by being good. Meg was as fair and delicate as I was dark and tall, and looked like an angel. ‘I’m a hopeless case,’ she once said, ‘bad all the way through.’ She sighed and shot me a look. ‘Poor me. But you’re good, Fanny’ She was at her most sarcastic. ‘The bit I lack.’

I screwed the top on to a bottle of olive oil with fingers that, suddenly, felt all thumbs. That sort of commotion usually meant one thing – and the house had been free of it for some time. Meg had been drinking. Not now, I thought. And then, why now, Meg? You’ve been doing so well.

Will would have heard – and his lips would have gone white. It had taken me several years to work out that this meant fear, loathing and love in equal measure, and that it was my job to protect him. ‘I’ll go,’ I called.

I went down the passage that ran the width of the house and let myself into Meg’s part of the house. ‘Sacha?’

‘Upstairs, Fanny.’

I found him in Meg’s bedroom, manhandling his mother’s inert body on to the bed, and hastened to help. Meg was hunched on her side, and her breath soughed audibly in and out. I smoothed her hair back from her forehead. ‘I should have checked on her.’

Sacha arranged her legs into a more comfortable position. ‘She’s been at it all day.’ He added, with an effort, ‘Sorry.’

‘It’s not your fault.’ I bent down to retrieve a whisky bottle from the floor. It was still three-quarters full. ‘I don’t think she’s had that much, Sacha.’

‘But enough.’

‘She’s been brilliant lately, and nothing while you were away.’ Sacha’s nu-metal band was struggling to get off the ground and he was frequently away doing the circuits.

Sacha flinched and I could have kicked myself. ‘Sacha, it isn’t you. It isn’t you coming back… It’s the time of year, an unexpected bill or – ’

‘I know. She rang my father today. Apparently, he wants to renegotiate the alimony. That’s probably it.’

‘Yes.’ Meg had never got over Rob walking out on her when Sacha was tiny. ‘Talking to your father’s always tricky for her.’

‘I know,’ he said again. He spoke far too wearily for a twenty-four-year-old. I slid my arms around my surrogate son. He smelt so clean. He always did, however many smoky, drink-filled places he worked in. ‘Don’t despair.’

‘I don’t,’ he lied.

‘Shall I sit with her?’

Sacha pushed me gently towards the door. This was between him and his mother and he kept it that way – because it was so terrible and so intimate.

Meg’s lost battle was marked out in the kitchen by a trail of half-empty coffee cups. The one by the phone was still full, and marked the moment of defeat. ‘Tea and coffee are so unattractive to look at,’ Meg said. ‘I can’t fancy them.’ But when it came to the rubies and topazes of wine and brandy, then we were talking.

How could I, of all people, with my passion for wine, disagree?

‘I hate you for knowing when to stop,’ Meg had flung at me once.

I harvested the cups and washed them up, scrubbing angrily at their brown, scummy rims. Meg had not only blackened the important moments of her son’s life, she had also instilled in him the fear that, one day, he might be like her.

I looked up from the sink and outside, outlined in the dusk, a vixen was sliding along the flower-bed. She was thinner than a London fox. They say that foxes are safest in the city, but I wonder if they have a genetic memory from the past that plagues them. Do they miss the smell of corn in high summer? The sharpness of frosted grass?

In our room, Will was already in bed and I slid in beside him. ‘Is she… is she all right?’


‘What triggered her off do you think?’

I considered it. ‘Rob rang her and wanted to talk about money, but I suspect that it had something to do with our anniversary.’

We talked about it for a bit. Will scratched his head. ‘I would give much to think that Meg was happy and sorted out.’ He turned to me. ‘She has a lot to thank you for, Fanny. So do I.’

My feelings for Meg could be ambivalent, but being thanked by Will was certainly sweet.

He stirred restlessly. ‘What do you think is best, Fanny,’ he said. ‘Do you think we should arrange more help for her? Could you manage to do that?’

‘I could, but it might be better if you could talk to her. Maybe she needs a bit of your attention.’

He thought about this. ‘I haven’t got the time at the moment. But I will when I can. I promise.’


Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату