In the Company of Strangers by Liz Byrski – Extract

In the Company of Strangers

NB – This extract contains Chapters One and Four

Chapter One

London, early February 2009

Ruby is in the kitchen when the mail arrives. She is sitting at the table in her winter dressing gown and tartan Marks and Spencer pyjamas, and although she hears the clatter of the postman pushing letters through the slot and the soft thwack as they land on the doormat she stays just where she is. Her usual enthusiasm for the mail is the stuff of legend and her staff frequently tease her about it. Sometimes she thinks it’s the first step in role reversal, they’re preparing to become the elders of the tribe when she starts to lose it. Not that she minds this, in fact she finds it quite endearing and plays up to it by deliberately demonstrating other eccentricities on which they can pounce with glee. As she has no intention of declining into dementia for a long time yet, and hopefully never, she sees no harm in indulging the younger generation with some amusement at her expense. She does have a childlike enthusiasm for the mail; where others dread crippling power bills, parking fines, requests for donations or news of death and destruction, Ruby anticipates good news of old friends, fresh connections and interesting possibilities.

There is a moment of silence after the mail drops, then a ring at the bell. Jim, who has been delivering the mail for decades, always rings to let her know the post has arrived, but still she doesn’t get up.

It’s pleasant here at the kitchen table with the comforting heat of the Aga on her back, her feet encased in ugg boots. Ugg, Ruby thinks, is a good name because despite the warmth and comfort they are fiendishly ugly, and have a worrying look of slovenliness about them, but now they seem to have become a fashion item. Not long ago, as she thumbed through Hello magazine while getting her hair trimmed, she’d come across a photograph of two pale, waif-like models with strag­gly hair wearing floaty cheesecloth dresses with ugg boots.

‘How ridiculous!’ Ruby had said, holding up the maga­zine so that Amanda, the hairdresser, could see it. ‘If it’s hot enough to wear cheesecloth it’s too hot for fur boots.’

‘That’s the fashion these days,’ Amanda had said. ‘Ugg boots with cheesecloth, army boots with florals and frills. That’s fashion for you, Rube. Madonna, Elle McPherson, they’re all doing it.’

‘We’ll they’re both old enough to know better,’ Ruby had replied . ‘Madonna – well what can I say? Fashion has always made fools of women if you ask me.’

But it’s not just comfort that keeps Ruby from the mail this morning, it’s her list, the secret list that might invite rather more affectionate teasing than she would enjoy. Apparently it’s called a bucket list, lord knows where that came from, some film, she thinks, but she likes the idea of setting priorities. This morning, woken early by a dream in which she was chasing her mother along a railway line, Ruby had failed to get back to sleep. The dream had left her puzzled and anxious – did it mean she was about to meet up with her mother beyond the grave? Not wanting to dwell on that thought she’d got out of bed, donned the dressing gown and ugg boots and had come downstairs to the warmth of the kitchen. And while she’d waited for the water to boil Ruby had fished the list out from its hiding place in the drawer of the kitchen table. It is not an inspir­ing document and from time to time she speculates on how much more interesting the bucket lists of some contem­poraries whom she admires might be: Vanessa Redgrave, Tariq Ali, Germaine Greer, Tony Benn, Margaret Drabble would doubtless be more inspiring.

The bell rings again.

‘All right, Jim, I heard you the first time,’ she calls, but now there is a third ring and she gets up and pads irritably to the front door and opens it to discover that it is not Jim but some new postman aged about twelve, his nose and cheeks glowing shiny red from the freezing wind, holding a receipt book and a pen.

‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘Put it through the door and then remem­bered I need a signature. It’s special delivery – overseas.’

‘What is?’

He points to a bulky manila package lying on the floor. ‘That one. Special delivery for Dame Ruby Medway, can you sign for her?’

Ruby resists the urge to claim her rightful title. Tartan pyjamas and ugg boots could be misleading. He probably thinks dames drift around in lacy negligees and have their mail delivered on a silver tray by a butler.

‘I don’t suppose she’ll mind,’ she says instead, and scrawls her name in his book. ‘Where’s Jim?’

‘Jamaica,’ the man-boy says, tucking the book into his pocket.

‘Jamaica?’

‘His kids give ’im and the missus two weeks there for their fortieth anniversary. Lucky bugger.’

‘Lucky bugger indeed.’

‘On me way then. That’s special delivery, mind,’ the post­man says, pointing to the manila envelope. ‘Better give it to Dame what’s-her-name soon as possible.’ And he is off down the steps into the freezing February morning, where the rain turns to ice on the pavement.

Back in the kitchen Ruby dumps the mail on the table and returns to her list. There’s something significant about writ­ing a list of things to do – it seems to constitute some sort of commitment. The list is pretty dog-eared now, littered with cryptic comments and crossings out:

  1. Write a history of the Foundation
  2. Get the conservatory built (ring Barry re tradesmen etc)
  3. Travel on the Orient Express
  4. Make amends to anyone I’ve hurt (too many – not gen­erous enough)
  5. Make love to someone twenty years younger than me (pretty unlikely due to lack of opportunity)
  6. Visit Cat (do I really mean this?)

The trouble with a bucket list is that it has to be open-ended; one might have one day left or ten, a year or ten, or maybe even thirty. That would make her ninety-nine, so that’s probably overdoing the optimism. And should it be prioritised bearing in mind that certain things need to be done while one is still physically fit or rather on the grounds of passion and enthusiasm? For example – should items 3 and 5 become 1 and 2? The trouble with thinking about it is that it suddenly becomes complicated. Keep it simple is what she would say to anyone else but Ruby’s never been good at taking her own advice.

It’s another half-hour before she finally starts to shuffle through the mail: an invitation to the opening of an exhibi­tion by an artist with whom she had a brief and torrid affair in the eighties, a message from Readers Digest full of stamps that you peel off and stick in various places on a form for the promise of a prize, a postcard from a friend on holiday in Greece, the latest edition of a quarterly journal, and the special delivery envelope, which has an Australian stamp. Cat? It reminds her that she owes Catherine an email and has done for two – maybe even three months. Pushing aside the other mail Ruby sees that the envelope bears the stamp of a solicitor in Busselton, and she slips a kitchen knife under the flap and draws out the contents with a sense of foreboding.

A small cream envelope with her name scrawled across it in Catherine’s characteristically bold hand slips from between the pages of folded documents. Cautiously Ruby puts it to one side and flattens the papers onto the table. The letter regrets to inform, it provides facts followed by instruc­tions. Everything she needs to know and to do, it tells her, is detailed in the attached schedule which is included along with a copy of Mrs Benson’s will, and a personal letter from the deceased. It offers condolences and requests a prompt reply.

Ruby reads the letter twice and sits there, staring at the small envelope, realising that although Catherine’s writing is still easily recognisable it is also somewhat changed: the letters look wobbly, they have odd tails hanging off them as though the hand that formed them couldn’t stop in the required places. It looks, Ruby thinks, like the writing of a very old, frail person, not like that of a robust, outspoken woman only a year older than Ruby herself. It is the writ­ing of someone who is – was – severely diminished, and the thought catches her in the chest and she presses a hand over her mouth, takes a deep breath and opens the letter.

Dearest Ruby, it begins.

By the time you get this I will have gone to God or, more likely, to the other bloke. I know you’ll be angry or hurt or both that I didn’t tell you what was happening, but what would you have done except worry and feel you should try to get here to see me? Well, selfishly I didn’t want that. Oh I wanted you to visit, and I’ve been trying to persuade you to do that for years but you kept finding excuses not to. But when I got sick I wanted there to be someone who couldn’t see what was happening, someone with whom I could be in denial. So now I have the satisfaction of knowing someone will remember me as I was before I started to look like a bald and withered stranger.

I’ve left it too late to say all I wanted to say except that you are my oldest and dearest friend, a far better friend than I deserved. It’s nearly fifteen years since we met up again and even then the past still haunted us, but the gift of rediscovering you has been one of the greatest joys of getting old. Apologies for the past are useless and self-indulgent; you know I am more than just grateful for your forgiveness.

I have made a will that asks more of you than one would nor­mally ask of a friend. Harry’s nephew, Declan, inherits almost half of Benson’s Reach but I’ve left you a controlling interest. Since I got sick I’ve let things go and someone needs to get it back to its best. I’m not sure Declan can do that alone. He’s an odd bod – indecisive, can’t hold on to relationships, a bit of a lost soul, but he has a good heart and fine mind when he bothers to use it. Perhaps this is the challenge he needs. In the long term you and he can decide what should happen but please, Ruby, give it a year. Do this for me, for us, for the past and what we once shared.

I wish we had met to say goodbye. Take care, Rube, make themost of what’s left, every precious minute of it. My love, always and ever. Cat

Ruby stares at the letter and wonders why she isn’t cry­ing, why the threat of that first sob has dissipated, why not a single tear is sliding down her cheek. It contains too much, she thinks, too much of the past, too many complex and conflicting emotions; it’s an ending which both robs and lib­erates. Theirs was an old but severely tested friendship that had begun in childhood and was shattered years later leav­ing them estranged for more than two decades, until the day Catherine turned up here, in London, on Ruby’s doorstep, wanting to repair the breach. When she’d left two weeks later to return to Australia, Catherine clearly felt she’d achieved her aim but for Ruby the situation had been more complex. She was prepared to resume contact, but she had been unable, or perhaps unwilling, to give more than that. In the past fifteen years she had disclosed little of her own life, sending just one letter or email for every three or four of Catherine’s, which she had read with detachment. Now Cat is gone, and with her that connection made by two terrified children on the crowded dockside more than sixty years ago. Did they ever talk about that moment, Ruby wonders now, about how their eyes locked, each recognising the fear in the other? Two little girls torn from their roots about to be herded like cattle onto a ship that would take them to a country they couldn’t even imagine. Ruby had seen a girl a little taller than herself, wear­ing a double-breasted tweed coat with round leather buttons and a velvet collar, very much like her own. A girl with her hair in two long plaits holding a small brown leather suitcase, and she knew that the girl’s whole life was in that suitcase just as her own life was contained in the coarse canvas holdall that hung over her own shoulder.

‘Keep calm now. Two at a time,’ the man had said, as the lines of children pushed towards the gangplank.

The girl squeezed through the crowd towards Ruby. ‘We could go together if you like,’ she’d said, holding out a woollen-gloved hand. ‘I’m Catherine.’ The label on her coat said Catherine Rogers – London to Fremantle.

Gripping hands, they were carried along in the throng of children, some crying, some struggling, others, like her and Cat, silent and terrified as they reached the deck.

‘Cheer up,’ said a man in a dog collar, his nose blue with cold. ‘Jesus loves you and you’re going to the sunshine.’

And Cat gripped Ruby’s hand harder as the ship’s hooter fired a triumphant blast into the dank London air.

Ruby reads the letter again and pulls her bucket list across the table towards her. Pen in hand she pauses briefly and then strikes out the last item. ‘Too late now,’ she murmurs, ‘too damn late.’ It’s more than a year since she compiled it, and almost fifteen since she promised Cat she would visit, a promise which at the time she’d had no intention of keeping.

It’s much later that evening when Jessica turns up, sweeping into the house in a cloud of cold evening air, tiny snowflakes melting across the shoulders of the black velvet vintage coat she bought last week in Camden Passage.

‘Sorry,’ she says, shaking snow from her hair. ‘Really sorry, it was one of those days. Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine,’ Ruby says, hugging her, knowing that she looks anything but – that she looks, in fact, as though some­one has punched her in the face. ‘Well, as fine as could be expected.’

Jessica hugs her again. ‘I’m so sorry, it’s very sad. Why didn’t she tell you? You’d have gone over, wouldn’t you?’

Ruby shrugs. ‘She wanted there to be someone who didn’t know, someone she could pretend with that it wasn’t hap­pening and that was me. So, if it helped . . . well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?’

Jessica unwinds the scarf from her neck, and unbuttons her coat. ‘I guess. So what have you decided?’

‘I’ve booked a flight for a fortnight today,’ Ruby says, urg­ing Jessica into the warmth of the kitchen. ‘Drink? I’ve just opened a bottle of red.’ And she pours some into a glass and hands it to her.

‘You didn’t go all the time she was alive, but you’re going now – now that she’s dead?’ Jessica takes the glass and leans against the front of the Aga. ‘I don’t—’

Ruby holds up a hand. ‘No. I will explain, but not now, not yet. It’s a very long story and I’m not ready to tell it yet. But I’m going now because it feels right. I need to look at the place, see what’s happening, meet Declan. And I need to be there for . . .’ she hesitates ‘. . . emotional reasons as well. You can cope with everything here, can’t you? You practically run it all anyway but we can get some help in for you.’

‘Of course I can cope. You must go, you’ve been saying for years that you would and now . . .’

‘Yes, yes, I should have gone after she came here but it all seemed . . . oh, I don’t know . . . too much baggage, I sup­pose. Anyway I’m going now.’

‘Will you be okay?’

‘Of course, I’m a tough old bird as you well know.’

‘I could come with you if you want. We could get Amy back to run things, or there are other possibilities.’

‘Thanks, that’s lovely of you, but it’s not necessary, I’ll be fine. Besides, I think I need to do this alone. So I might be gone for a while, a month, maybe two.’

Jessica nods, and gives her a long look. ‘Of course, but you don’t need to worry about anything here.’

‘You’re such a blessing, Jess, and very efficient. The Foun­dation would have ground to a halt by now without your taking on so much.’

‘And twenty years ago I would have ground to a halt without you and the Foundation helping me.’

‘I suspect you would have survived without us, one of the few who might, but a lot wouldn’t. It’s such a fundamental thing, isn’t it, providing a safe place to leave a child in a cri­sis, or even just to go to work?’ Ruby crosses to the Aga, lifts the lid on a pot of soup, gives it a stir and turns back to Jes­sica. ‘You know, back in the seventies when it all got going, I honestly believed that twenty-four-hour childcare was just around the corner and every woman would have access to it, but here we are more than thirty years on and we’re still only scratching the surface. When you see how desperate women are . . . oh well, you’ve heard me say this a thousand times, you know it all . . . better than I do, but at least we’ve made a difference, and you, Jess, are a tower of strength.’

‘And you’re a handy old dame with a cliché,’ Jessica says, raising her glass. ‘Anyway, here’s to your friend Catherine, and to – what’s it called? – Benson’s . . . Benson’s Reach. After all, it’s not every day you inherit fifty-five per cent of a . . . well I’m not sure what it is, really.’

‘About thirty hectares of land almost three hundred kilo-metres south of Perth, with eight rammed-earth, self-catering holiday cottages, a lavender and berry farm, gift shop and café. And what used to be a rather lovely old house, all a bit run down by now, I suspect.’

Jessica raises her eyebrows, as well as her glass. ‘As I said – to Benson’s Reach, and whatever you decide for it. This Declan won’t know what’s hit him. Have you ever met him?’

‘Once – donkey’s years ago. He’d have been about seven or eight at the time, I think. Nice kid, reddish hair and freckles. He was running around, arms outstretched, being an aeroplane. Crop dusting, he said. I thought that was sweet and preferable to wanting to be a fighter pilot. But I’ve really got no idea what I’m walking into.’ She turns to the stove. ‘Anyway, I hope you’re staying to eat. I’ve made minestrone and got some of that olive bread from the Italian baker.’

‘Of course I’m staying,’ Jessica says, pulling out a chair and sitting down at the table. ‘If you’re buzzing off to Australia and leaving me in charge there’s stuff we need to sort out. Besides, I’m starving, so bring it on.’

Chapter Four

Margaret River, WA, mid-February 2009

Declan, alone in the office, surrounded by paperwork in untidy piles, facing a spreadsheet from which he is supposed to calculate staff pay and authorise it, is bordering on panic. Three weeks ago he was para­chuted into this place and expected to take over because his aunt was dying, but the end had come within days, sooner than everyone – no, not everyone – sooner that he had expected.

‘Please, Declan,’ Catherine had begged when she had called in late November, ‘I don’t have long to go, come and stay, come soon, so I can show you the ropes.’

But of course he hadn’t. The prospect of being up close and personal with Catherine showing him the ropes of a business that she’d run single-handedly for years was too hard to contemplate. It wasn’t that he didn’t like his aunt, he liked – even loved – her rather a lot, but she expected so much of him, demanded the same sort of vigorous con­versations they used to have when, years earlier, he’d gone down to Benson’s Reach in the university breaks. That was twenty-five years or more ago and it had been fun then.

He’d always taken a friend and they’d be planting or cutting back, digging new beds, tying up the fruit canes, sometimes putting up new fences. Then, in the evening, they’d sit with Catherine around the big table, drinking wine and putting the world to rights. But Declan has changed since then. Too much has happened – bad, stupid, embarrassing things that have made him feel vulnerable, fear exposure, keep him from getting up close and personal with anyone. Catherine was too intense, her questions too probing, and although she never passed judgment on him her mere presence made him pass judgment on himself. He’d assumed she was exagger­ating when she’d told him she didn’t have long and he had stayed away until it was almost too late. Stupid, he thinks now, stupid and selfish. It would have been easy, really. He’d been living in Albany, doing a job that bored him senseless. If he’d come here when she asked, he would by now have known what he was doing.

It had never occurred to Declan that Catherine would leave him a share in Benson’s Reach. He’d thought she wanted him to run it until someone else took over or it was sold. So he’d kept putting it off, and then the call came from the hospital. She’d lived just three more days in no state to tell him anything much at all. And he had hovered between here and the hospital, embarrassed, shamefaced, horrified by what he’d done, or rather not done. He knew next to nothing about the business and it was too late to learn it from the one person who knew it back to front. The knowledge that he had let down the only member of his family who had ever shown any real interest in him was hauntingly painful.

Declan had run a number of businesses in the past and proved to be not particularly good at it, largely because noth­ing really grabbed him by the heart or the gut. He’d tried real estate, got to run a small section of a department in the public service, and even been employed to manage a very small non-government agency. He was personable, likeable and very good at looking as though he could manage things, but he was never quite up to the task. Things started off well and then began to fall slowly apart. He was actually happiest doing something physical, but he didn’t appear that way to others. He looked bookish, more like a friendly teacher. He had soft, pale hands that didn’t seem suitable for bricklay­ing or fencing, no one wanted to employ him to do physical work.

Inheriting just under half of Benson’s Reach would have been a dream come true if he could be tending the lavender and the berries, mending the fences, mowing or doing the maintenance on the cottages – anything, in fact, other than actually sitting in this office pretending he knows how to run it and, right now, trying to draft an advertisement for staff.

None of this is made any easier by the fact that his co­beneficiary and therefore business partner could arrive from London at any time. All Declan knows about her is that she and Catherine met when they were sent to Australia as child migrants in 1947. So she’ll be about the same age and she’ll probably know less about this than he does, which is really saying something. Sadly, the prospect of her grasping the reins and taking charge while sending him off to chop wood and trim the lavender seems unlikely. And she also has the controlling interest. Declan is not keen on the idea of being the one who has the final say, but he’s never owned property before, so he’s not sure how he’ll feel when he has to argue for something he wants or has to defer to someone else. What if she wants to sell it, would that be a good thing or not?

‘Ruby’s a very smart lady,’ Paula had said, ‘not that I’ve met her, but Catherine talked about her a lot. Very smart, she said.’ She had been heading for the office with her cleaning trolley at the time, emanating disapproval of his failure to turn up more than a few days before Catherine’s death. ‘Yes, very smart. Catherine said Ruby was here when you were a kid.’

Paula may be right but Declan can’t remember it. Suppose they don’t get on or don’t agree on what should happen – what then? At this stage Declan doesn’t really know what he wants, but based on past experience he’ll discover what he doesn’t want if Ruby suggests it. It’s always been that way with him.

‘I don’t know why she even left a share of the place to me,’ he’d said to Paula. ‘I wasn’t a good nephew; in fact I wasn’t her nephew, just Harry’s, and I can hardly remember him. So, why me?’

‘She thought a lot of you,’ Paula had said. ‘Very fond of you, she was. Very sad that you didn’t come here for help those times you were in trouble.’

‘What? You mean she knew about all that? The, well . . . er . . .’

‘The drink and the drugs – oh yes, she knew all about that.’

‘You mean she knew everything?’

‘’Course she did. Not much got past Catherine.’

‘But how – how did she know?’

Paula shrugged, ‘Someone always knows and someone always passes it on. WA may be a huge state but it’s a very small community. Catherine knew a lot of people. Shame you couldn’t make it here when she needed you.’ And she wheeled the trolley into the office, running over Declan’s foot and twisting a knife into his already guilt-stricken gut. Paula, he thinks, is both blessing and nightmare. She knows the place well and does a terrific job, but she’s too opinion­ated and nosy for his liking. He watches her now as she zips through the office dusting, wiping, whizzing around with the vacuum cleaner.

‘Don’t touch anything on the desk,’ he calls. Not that it would make much difference, he hasn’t a clue what’s there or how to deal with it. She’s an odd sort of mix, Paula, late thirties, possibly a bit more, very tight jeans and a pink t-shirt with a picture of Kylie Minogue on the front, usu­ally plugged into her iPod, singing along quietly with Kylie while she works. But quite often, when she opens her mouth, she sounds like a 1950s charlady.

He shuffles a few papers on the desk now and, thankful that Paula has vacated the office, finds a pad and starts to draft an ad. It would help if he actually knew what sort of staff he needs but he hasn’t been able to work that out yet. What he feels he needs is someone who will tell him what to do, how to make the place work. The figures for the summer tourist trade are down considerably on previous years and the whole place is looking seedy. A couple of seasonal garden staff have left, and everything looks sad and neglected. The shop obviously needs restocking, and although the young assistant is still there, Glenda, who had managed it for years, decided that Catherine’s death was the signal for her own retirement.

The chef left a couple of months ago and Catherine had apparently run out of the energy required to interview any­one new, so she had closed the café. Declan has no idea what goes on with the lavender products except that for years Catherine made them all herself: the moisturisers and cleans­ers, the soaps and shampoos and conditioners, the massage oils and refresher sprays and all the rest of it. But some years ago she’d started talking about finding someone to train, and that’s when Fleur came along. Fleur, who in so many ways is larger than life – confident, outspoken – makes Dec­lan feel like an awkward child. She’s a big woman, younger than him, probably not yet forty, but tall and curvaceous, with lots of wild auburn hair, and big gestures. Something about her conveys the impression that she is the possessor of ancient wisdom and whenever she’s around Declan fumbles for words and struggles to remember that he’s the one who’s supposed to be in charge. But it’s easy for him to see why Catherine chose Fleur to be the one to whom she would pass the baton of the lavender products. She oozes competence, believes passionately in the soothing and healing properties of the lavender, and her sense of humour is similar to Cath­erine’s. Fleur plays with irony and takes no prisoners, and if something upsets her she doesn’t mince her words. She seems to get on well with the rest of the staff but keeps her distance, spending most of her time in the workroom and production area and not using the staff room. But she’s good at managing the volunteers who turn up to collect the dried lavender and bags of fabric to make soft toys and eye and neck pillows.

‘Why don’t we pay the volunteers?’ Declan had asked Fleur as they walked around the gift shop a couple of days after he arrived.

‘Because they’re volunteers,’ Fleur had said, raising her eyebrows and tilting her head to one side as though humour­ing him. ‘All the profits from the cushions and the toys go to charity,’ she’d said, showing him the label around the neck of the nearest teddy bear. ‘Benson’s provides the dried lav­ender and some of the fabric. The rest of the materials come from local people and businesses who give us offcuts and remnants and also offcuts of the Dacron that goes in with the lavender to make up the filling. Catherine knew various people in Perth so every time she went there she’d come back with bags of leftover fabric and Dacron.’

‘But where does the money actually go?’ Declan had asked. ‘What does it do?’

‘The Birthing Kit Project,’ Fleur had explained. ‘They make up birthing kits for women in developing countries. They’re very simple but hugely effective because they reduce the risk of death from infection and bleeding.’

Declan had blushed and swallowed hard; he was not good with discussions about bleeding, especially about women bleeding. ‘Really?’ he managed to say. ‘That sounds . . . um . . . very . . .’

‘I can show you a kit if you like,’ Fleur had said. ‘I’ve got one in the workroom.’

‘No, no need for that,’ Declan had said almost too quickly, visualising terrifying sets of forceps and hypodermic needles. ‘I’m sure they’re . . . they must be . . . um . . . important and obviously we should keep doing it.’

Fleur had eyed him off at the time, and he’d thought she might be having a silent laugh at his expense. Later she’d put some leaflets about the birthing kits on his desk, together with a small plastic package.

‘It’s very important, you need to read about it,’ Paula had said fiercely when she spotted them the following day. ‘Cath­erine thought it was important.’

So he had tucked them away in a drawer and turned his attention to other aspects of the business: the potted lavender plants in fancy gift containers, the berry products – the jams, the sauces and vinegars made up by a couple of women in the town and delivered complete in octagonal glass jars and bottles topped with purple and white checked fabric and rib­bon. Then there was the bulk picking (no more now until next summer, thank goodness) and the pick-your-own trade and, of course, the letting of the cottages. Catherine had kept every­thing in her head and so the history, the daily life and orderly running of the place had died with her. Declan knows he lacks the organisational skill and the sort of passionate energy needed to pull it all together. Each day he comes in here and stares in dismay at the chaos which has not changed since the previous day except to become more overbearing. He is para­lysed by anxiety, fearful of messing things up in ways that will destroy the place and with it the jobs of the remaining staff.

The telephone rings and Declan clears his throat and attempts to sound professional and confident as he answers. It’s a booking. His first.

‘A week certainly,’ the woman says, ‘but I may want to stay longer. I thought you might be fully booked.’

‘Normally we would be,’ Declan says in a tone he hopes is genial but businesslike, ‘but we’ve had . . . a few administra­tive problems, things have slipped a little. We haven’t been processing any bookings.’

‘Well that’s my good luck then,’ the woman says. ‘It’s a lovely place so I’m happy you can take me. In fact, book me in for two weeks. I’ll pay in advance.’

‘I just need to tell you that we’ve had to close the café for a while,’ Declan says. ‘It used to cater for breakfast and lunch. But we can provide everything for a continental breakfast delivered to your cottage kitchen, so if you’re happy with that . . .’

‘That’s not a problem . . . Mrs Benson, is she still there?’

Declan takes a deep breath. ‘Sadly Mrs Benson died recently. I’m her nephew, Declan Benson.’

There is an awkward silence at the end of the line, then, ‘Oh . . . oh my goodness, I’m so sorry, how very sad. Well I don’t know what to say now. Your aunt, I only met her the one time we stayed there but she was lovely, so warm and friendly. It must be a great loss.’

The words slip like a dagger into Declan’s heart, and for the first time he actually feels that loss. Stunned by the enormity of what he has to take on it is only now that he starts to feel exactly what it is that he has lost. A lump of something hard and painful seems to have gathered in his throat and he tries to swallow it and coughs in the process. ‘It is indeed,’ he says, thinking his voice sounds as though he’s being strangled. ‘But it was her wish that we should carry on with the business so—’

‘Of course,’ the woman cuts in, ‘but it’s difficult, I’m sure. Well, two weeks then, the name is Craddock, Lesley Crad­dock – shall I give you my credit card details?’

Declan puts down the phone, enters the booking into the register and leans back in his chair thinking about Catherine, who she really was and what she meant to him. His parents are both long dead, the wider family scattered and unknown to him. His ex-wife despises him for his indecisiveness and his drinking, and hopes never to hear from him again. Years ago, in this situation, Declan would have reached for a drink. He would have opened a bottle of Scotch and poured a liberal amount down his throat, and then some more; or he might have drunk his way steadily through a few bottles of wine until panic and confusion were replaced by the comforting feeling that he was in total control and knew exactly what he was doing. Then he would have passed out, woken up the next morning with a terrible headache and started all over again. There were times, too, when he would have shoved something up his nose or into his arm, but that was a long time ago. It’s twelve years since he had a drink and much longer since he’s taken anything stronger than a couple of Panadol. These days he attempts to deal with stress through meditation, but times like this are a painful reminder that he was much better at drinking than he seems to be at medi­tating. He wonders now if he might be better to shelve all this confusing paperwork and go outside and sort out the sprinkler system, or check the raspberry canes. But the rasp­berries are finished and, anyway, he’s done that for the last four days and each time he comes back in here no office fairy has worked magic on any of the problems, a few more of which have landed on the desk.

Declan makes himself a cup of tea, sits down again and steels himself for the task ahead. He opens the diary in which Catherine had thoughtfully put some reminders for various days. On today’s date the message in block capitals is sau­sage dogs followed by a phone number.

‘Sausage dogs?’ he exclaims in frustration, loud enough to make Paula, who is back now and is dragging the vacuum cleaner out of the office, jump almost out of her skin. ‘What the dickens are sausage dogs?’

‘Bloody hell,’ Paula says, ‘you frightened the life out of me.’

‘How am I supposed to know what this means?’ Declan grumbles – it is so much easier to turn the sadness and the guilt into anger. ‘Sausage dogs!’

‘They’re the things you put along the bottom of the door to stop draughts,’ Paula says. And she reaches down behind the open door and picks up a long sausage-shaped thing made of purple corduroy. ‘Like this. They’re very popular with the winter tourists. Catherine would have been thinking about ordering some into the shop for when the weather changes.’

Declan nods. ‘Draught excluders,’ he says quietly, ‘well I’d better get on to Belinda, whoever she—’ but he’s interrupted by the phone and when he picks it up there is no one there because it’s his mobile that’s ringing and he slams down the receiver and shuffles more paper to find it buried under a gardening supplies catalogue.

‘Declan? Declan, is that you?’

It’s a woman’s voice. The signal is weak and he gets up and goes outside onto the deck. ‘Hello, who’s that? I can hardly hear you.’ And the line drops out.

‘Shit,’ he murmurs, ‘who was that? Oh my god it sounded like—’ and it rings again.

‘Popular, aren’t you?’ Paula says dryly, shaking her duster over the edge of the verandah.

‘Declan, it’s me, Alice.’

‘Alice?’ Declan is, quite suddenly, short of breath. ‘Alice?’

‘Yes.’ Her voice sounds odd, shaky, or perhaps it’s just the line. ‘You said to call when . . . well, if . . .’

‘Alice?’ he says. ‘Is it really you, are you getting out?’ Goose bumps prickle his skin.

‘I’m out,’ she says. ‘Last week, last Monday.’

‘But that’s wonderful . . .’

‘No, no it’s not, it’s awful. I thought it would get better, but it’s ten days now and it’s worse every day. That’s why I’m ringing. I’m sorry it’s just . . . I don’t have anyone else to talk to.’

Declan’s spine tingles. Alice!

‘Alice,’ he says, and he can hear that she’s really distressed. ‘Alice, listen to me. Everything will be fine, trust me. Where are you now?’

She mumbles something about temporary accommoda­tion, about trying to find a job.

‘Listen, Alice,’ he cuts in suddenly, uncharacteristically decisive. ‘Listen to me. I’m in Margaret River now, my aunt’s place, remember? Can you get yourself here? There’s a bus you can get from Perth, it takes four or five hours. Do you have enough money for a ticket? Good. Get the first bus you can, it might not be till tomorrow, but ring and tell me what time it arrives. It stops right in the Margaret River High Street and I’ll be there to meet you.’

‘But I have to get a job, I won’t have anywhere to—’

‘You can stay here,’ he says, ‘I’ve got a job for you, you can have a nice little cottage all to yourself. Lovely place, lots of lavender . . .’

‘But I—’

‘Do it, Alice,’ Declan says, and he hears the pleading in his own voice. ‘Do it for you and for me. I need you here and you’ll love it. Go and find out about that bus and ring me back. Trust me, Alice, please just trust me.’

Excerpted from In the Company of Strangers by Liz Byrski. Copyright © 2012 by Liz Byrski.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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2 thoughts on “In the Company of Strangers by Liz Byrski – Extract

  1. Veronica

    Loved your book. I was first attracted to it as it based on one of my passions, all things lavender. It was not only a good read, but it was thought provoking (I’m close to turning 53).

    Reply
    1. Cristina Villa

      I’m glad to tell you that this is for me the first title I’ve bought as an e-book! I’m planning to read it on my way to Sydney. I’m leaving Milan via London on 12th Feb. and I’m very excited at the idea… It will help me to spend so much time on the plane! Don’t you think
      Cristina

      Reply

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