The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams – Extract

The House on the Cliff

PROLOGUE

You used to watch her, didn’t you? Watch her like a hawk, her every move. Well, people did, of course. She was a pretty little thing. Pink cheeks and a sky-blue sweater, fair curls, short shorts, and those long, tanned legs with the square, bony knees, like a child’s. Those thighs with not a dimple on them, and the soft, silky peach fuzz of hair along the inside of her shin. Only just out of childhood she was – you could see it in the way she couldn’t keep still, watching TV, reading, sitting there on the sofa, her legs all gangly, wriggling about, twiddling her hair, and then noticing that you were looking and straightening up, putting her feet back on the floor, folding her arms across her chest, hiding her breasts, self-conscious all of a sudden.

And the way she laughed, like a peal of bells – bells you only hear in fairy stories, tinker bells, snow bells, jingling on a sleigh . . . Oh, what fun it is to ride . . . It was good to hear that in the house, cutting through the gloom, slicing it as if it were jelly, clouded aspic, with all of us inside it. Calling us, she was, reminding us how happy we could be, too, could have been, might still be, if only . . .

She was always on the point of laughing, you could see, her words wobbling on the edge of it, slipping out on her pink tongue like a kitten’s, her breath sweet and warm as a saucer of milk. They don’t do that when they grow up, do they, girls – answer every question with a wriggle and a giggle. A blessing, in a way, that she stayed like that forever, high and happy, happy and high, and half dizzy on the edge of her life, looking down at the water, plucking up the courage to dive in. That she never woke up tired, with no one beside her, and lay alone, her limbs slack, with a pain in her gut, an empty, sour, missing pain, looking out through the rain on the window at the trees outside, branches hunched and hunkered up against a winter sky, and wondered how so many years could have gone by just like that, crept up on you so quick, so cunning, each one a player in a long summer evening shadows lengthening game of statues, tiptoeing up close every time you looked back, close, close, and closer, until at last one of them stepped forward, and tapped you on the shoulder…

Oh, come on now, stop that. You’re not going to croak yet. Don’t get maudlin. The past is the past. It stays where you left it, far behind. You turn a corner one day, and you can’t see it any more. It’s gone. There’s nothing left of it, nothing. No one else knows, do they? It was only you and her, so now, if you choose not to remember . . . well, then, that’s the end of it. God’s left the quad, and he’s not coming back.

Of course, she only had herself to blame. She knew per­fectly well what she was up to. You told her she’d no right to mess around with people like that. Flaunt herself, take what­ever she wanted, whenever she wanted. It just wasn’t fair. You only did what you had to do. Put a stop to it, there and then.

And you didn’t feel sorry afterwards, and you don’t now, you still don’t, you won’t ever, because, at the end of the day, she bloody well deserved it. Sitting there twiddling and wriggling and giggling, as if butter wouldn’t melt.

Silly little bitch. It was her own fault. Her own stupid fault. Not mine . . .

1

It was a sunny Monday in September. The day started out like any other: Bob away on business, Nella and Rose quarrelling over breakfast, both silent in the car as I drove them to school. I dropped them off at the gates and watched them walk down the road, keeping a firm distance from each other, Rose neat in her navy anorak, hair tied back, Nella shambling along in her ripped jeans, nodding her head to her iPod. I wondered whether Rose was slightly too well turned out perhaps, a little too eager to please. And Nella the other extreme, rather too scruffy, too insouciant. I sighed involuntarily as I watched them go.

I hope they’re all right, I thought, as they disappeared around the corner out of sight, one after the other. I felt that familiar tug of love, or fear, or whatever it is, that always hits me when my children walk away from me, out into the world; and then I leaned forward, switched on the radio, and headed off to work.

There was a traffic jam all the way along Cathedral Road, and while I was waiting I tilted the rear-view mirror towards me, examining my appearance. I hadn’t slept well the night before, and there were bags under my eyes to prove it. I took a lipstick out of my pocket and rubbed some of it onto my cheeks. I hoped it would distract attention from the bags. It did, but not in a good way. I was wondering whether to wipe it off again when the driver in the car behind began to bang on his horn, so I tilted the mirror back up and put my foot on the accelerator, resisting the temptation to flick him a V-sign as I went.

On the way in to the office I bought myself a takeaway cup of coffee from the local deli. I parked the car at the back of the building where I work, and went round to the front door. I stopped on the way up to my office to say hello to Branwen, the receptionist, and we had a detailed discussion about the possibility of rain that day. Then I climbed the stairs to the second floor, unlocked the door and let myself in.

As ever, the room was calm, pale, welcoming. The sun was filtering through the leaves of the trees outside the window, casting a shifting play of shadows over the ceiling, and there was a gentle hum of traffic from the street below. Everything in the room was in perfect order, my books lined up straight on the shelves, my Ben Nicholson-style relief resting serenely on the wall opposite. The two armchairs in the corner were positioned exactly right – not too close for comfort, not too far for intimate revelations – and the couch by the window, with its muted green upholstery, looked inviting, rather than intimidating.

I went over to my desk, switched on my computer and, while it buzzed and flickered, began to look through my post. There was nothing much of interest among the bills and junk mail, just a couple of invitations to conferences that I was unlikely to go to, one in Leipzig and one in Stockholm. At the bottom of the pile I came to a small brown envelope with my name and address written out on it in neat capitals. I opened it, wondering what it could be. There was no letter inside, just a photograph of a middle-aged man. He had a sinister appearance and, when I looked closer, I saw why: his eyes had been coloured in with a marker pen, so that they were black.

I was puzzled. The photograph had been taken outdoors, perhaps by the sea – somewhere windy, anyway. The man was hand some, in a patrician sort of way, with a full head of greying hair, a bony, aquiline nose, and the kind of wrinkles that make a face look distinctive, lived in, rather than ground down and defeated. He was dressed in a leather jacket, the collar turned up rather raffishly against the wind. The ghost of a smile played around his lips. He wore the expression of a man who was pleased with him self and his place in the world, perhaps even a little disdainful of the onlooker. Even the blacked-out eyes failed to dispel his air of self-confidence.

I checked the envelope again to see if there was a letter inside, but it was empty. I turned it over and studied the postmark. It had been posted locally the day before. I wondered who on earth could have sent it, and why. I was curious, but not alarmed. Getting odd missives through the post is an occupational hazard in my job. Ex-clients, or members of their families, occasion ally send me rambling, incoherent letters that are either effusive, abusive, or both. I usually glance through them, put them to one side and, after a couple of weeks, send a polite note in response. In this case, as there was no address, it was clear I wouldn’t even need to do that.

I slid the photograph back into the envelope, and put it in the ‘pending’ tray on my desk. I covered it with the letters I needed to keep from the morning’s post, and threw the junk mail in the bin. Then I opened my coffee, blew on it, and took a sip.

The phone rang. I didn’t pick it up, because I knew who it would be – Bob was away at a conference. The answerphone came on, and I listened.

‘Jess, just calling to see how you are.’ There was an anxious note in Bob’s voice. Good, I thought. Serves him right. Let him suffer.

A month ago, Bob had returned from a business trip and confessed to me that he’d had a one-night stand. He’d said he’d resolved not to tell me, but after he’d got home he’d found he couldn’t live with the guilt. He’d begged my forgiveness, explained that he wasn’t unhappy with me, but that he’d been feeling frustrated in his career. It had been a pathetic attempt to boost his ego, he’d said. I hadn’t been very understanding.

‘And the girls,’ Bob went on. ‘I hope Nella’s concert goes all right today. Tell her I’m sorry to miss it.’ Pause. ‘Give her my love, won’t you. Wish her luck.’ Another pause.

I’d asked him how old the woman was. About thirty, he’d said, shamefaced. Who was she, I’d wanted to know. Just a local translator, he’d told me. No one of any significance. That had disgusted me. A man of fifty-two, the head of the legal department at the Assembly, sleeping with a woman so much younger than himself, someone he regarded as un­important. I hadn’t enquired further. And I hadn’t forgiven him, either.

‘Your mobile doesn’t seem to be working. Mine’s on, if you want to call.’ He sighed. ‘Anyway, I’ll be back later this evening. I’ll get a cab from the airport. Be in about nine.’ Silence. ‘See you then. I’ll bring you a surprise.’

I hoped it wouldn’t be flowers. Bob knows I love flowers, so he’d been bringing them home, great bunches of them, wait­ing for me to put them in a vase and, when I didn’t, doing it him self. Seeing them there, arranged cack-handedly on the mantel piece, had made me want to cry. Or scream. I hadn’t yet, except to my self. I was determined not to upset the girls. And I wanted to hold on to my marriage . . . at least for the time being.

Bob hung up. I leaned forward and switched off the ringer on the phone, so I wouldn’t be disturbed again.

I glanced at my watch. There was an hour to go until my first appointment of the day, an assessment of a new client. I decided to spend it doing some research on one of the regulars I had coming in later on, rather than letting my mind dwell on Bob, what he might be getting up to at the conference, and how I was ever going to forgive him for his betrayal.

I was reading a paper on Complicated Grief in the Journal of Phenomenological Psychotherapy when there was a knock at the door. I glanced at the clock. My new client had arrived a little ahead of time, but as it was his first visit – for an assess­ment, rather than a session – I put away my paper, picked up my notes, walked over to the door, and ushered him in.

I noticed immediately he walked into the room that he was a remarkably handsome man, tall and broad-shouldered, with a natural grace in the way he carried himself. I judged him to be in his late twenties, or thereabouts. He was wearing carefully ripped jeans, a black V-neck sweater with nothing on under­neath, and a pair of running shoes covered in straps and bits of rubber. His shoulder-length hair was swept back from his face, and he had a day’s stubble on his chin.

‘Do sit down,’ I said, indicating one of the armchairs in the corner of the room.

‘Sorry if I’m a bit early.’ He spoke in a low, polite tone.

‘Not at all.’

He took the chair nearest the window. I sat down opposite him, glancing at my notes.

‘Do you mind if I call you Gwydion, Mr Morgan?’

‘That’s fine.’

‘And please call me Jessica.’

He nodded. Up close I could see that his eyes were green, fringed with thick, black lashes. I looked away. It seemed indecent to do anything else.

I waited for him to start talking. The way I was trained, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Wait for the client to initiate the conversation. You listen attentively, then you ‘reflect back’ – that is, repeat what they’ve just said, maybe paraphrasing it a bit. Only I don’t always do what I’m supposed to. Hardly ever, in fact. These days, after all my years of practice, I trust myself to do whatever comes naturally. So, after a short pause, I asked, ‘How can I help?’

I was conscious of his eyes on me as I spoke. Normally, I dress quite formally for work, in fitted suits and smart blouses. My taste runs to high-quality vintage and reproduction out fi ts, which I go to a lot of trouble to track down and customize. But that morning, as it was a warm day, I’d dressed more casually, in a Forties-style printed cotton dress and high espadrilles. Now I began to feel self-conscious about my bare legs, and wished I’d worn something more modest.

‘I don’t know.’ He ran a hand through his hair, in a gesture of frustration. ‘It’s a bit . . .’ His voice trailed off.

Silence again. This time I didn’t say anything. Experience has taught me that when someone comes to a grinding halt, something interesting is about to be said.

‘It’s odd . . . I don’t know how to . . .’ He blushed.

I wondered if it was going to be premature ejaculation. That’s one of the commonest problems I see with men. Especially men under thirty, like this one. So I waited for an opportunity to help him to say it, if that’s what it was.

He looked down. The thick, black lashes fl uttered against his flushed cheeks. Eventually, he spoke.

‘It’s to do with buttons,’ he said.

‘Buttons?’ I repeated the word quietly, evenly. Reflecting back, you see. Sometimes, of course, it’s best to follow the cor­rect procedure.

‘Yes, buttons.’

I glanced down to see if there was a rivet on his jeans. If there was, it was hidden by his belt.

‘Any particular type?’

He looked up at me, relieved that I hadn’t laughed at him.

‘The plastic ones are worst. The ones with four little holes. But I don’t like any of them, actually.’

There was a pause.

‘Well.’ I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. ‘That’s not as unusual as you might think. It’s a well-known syndrome. It’s got a name. Koumpounophobia.’

‘Really?’ He looked relieved. ‘Koumpou . . . What was that?’

‘Koumpounophobia. They made up the word for people who are so button phobic they can’t say the word “button”.’

‘I see.’ He smiled at me a little warily. ‘Well, I’m not that bad. I can talk about buttons. I can’t wear them, but I can cope with seeing them. From a distance. I won’t touch them, though. And if they come loose. Or fall off . . .’ He shuddered.

I’d come across cases of koumpounophobia before. They were difficult to resolve. Sometimes, if I couldn’t get any where, I sent them over to Dougie, the cognitive behavioural therapist on the other side of the corridor. Meinir, the hypnotherapist on the floor above, was also pretty good on this kind of thing.

Gwydion sighed and passed a hand over his forehead. His glossy hair flopped forward over his face.

‘It gets worse when I’m stressed.’

‘That’s very common, too.’

At this, he looked a little put out. People are funny like that, I’ve noticed. At first, they’re pleased to find that they have a syndrome with an important-sounding name. Then they start to get worried that their complaint might not be exclusive enough.

‘Actually, I am under rather a lot of strain at the moment,’ he said. ‘I’m working very long hours, finishing a series.’ He stopped and gave me a searching look. ‘A TV series.’ He stopped again. ‘I’m Danny in Down in the Valley. You’ve prob­ably seen it.’

‘Ah.’ I nodded in a non-committal way.

Down in the Valley is a long-running Welsh TV soap. The girls watch it religiously. But I’d never sat through an episode all the way through, and I’d certainly never seen Danny appear onscreen. If I had, I would have remembered him.

He began to tell me about himself. As well as being Danny in Down in the Valley, he’d also starred in a film called The War of the Dragon Kings and had played several other screen roles, which, he said, I should look up on an Internet site called Curtain Call Casting. He was currently on the verge of a breakthrough in his career, having been offered a starring role in a major new period drama, an adaptation of the novel Helen by Maria Edgeworth, a contemporary of Jane Austen. He was very excited about it and was preparing to start rehearsals in three months’ time. He’d come to me for help because he was worried that he wouldn’t be able to cope with his costume – the buttons on the waistcoat, the jacket, and so on. His manner, as he spoke, was intense; he was articulate and sensitive, evidently deeply committed to his work. Despite – or because of – his reserve, he had a strong presence, and I could well imagine that he was a gifted actor. I could also see that he was very troubled by his phobia, afraid that he might let this longed-for opportunity slip through his hands.

When he’d finished I asked, ‘I wonder, are there any other difficulties in your life at present?’

‘How d’you mean?’

‘Anything else worrying you?’

‘Such as?’

‘Well, relationships, for instance.’

‘I don’t have a girlfriend, if that’s what you mean. I mean, there have been . . . there are . . . from time to time . . .’ He looked away. I was surprised at his diffidence, given that he was such a good-looking man. ‘But nothing serious. At the moment, anyway.’

‘And your family?’

‘I’m an only child. I have a very close relationship with my mother. My father . . .’ He came to a halt.

‘I don’t get on with my father, as it happens,’ he continued, after a short pause. ‘He’s a bit of an egomaniac.’ He hesitated. ‘But to be honest, I don’t really want to go into all that. I just want to get this button phobia sorted, and get on with my life.’

I nodded. ‘Well, I can see why, with this big part coming up. But I’m afraid if you’re in a hurry, I’m not going to be much help to you. I’m a psychotherapist. What I do takes a long time and a lot of effort. And it doesn’t always work.’

He looked surprised.

‘You see, if you came to me, we would definitely need to look into your family relationships, especially those you find difficult.’

A flash of irritation crossed his face, but I continued.

‘So if you want to deal with this quickly, you’d be better off seeing my colleague over the way. He has an altogether different approach. He’ll help you identify your negative thought patterns, your specific fears, and so on, and take you through a set of exercises to try to change them. He may use a technique called exposure. First, you’ll talk about buttons, then you’ll see pictures of them, then you’ll be asked to hold one, and so on, until you get over your phobia.’ I paused. ‘Is that the kind of thing you’re after?’

He looked doubtful.

‘It’s actually very effective,’ I said. ‘And I can highly recom­mend this particular colleague.’

‘The thing is . . .’ He looked away, avoiding my gaze. ‘It’s not just the buttons.’

He seemed shy all of a sudden, embarrassed. The idea that he might have a sexual hang-up came back to me, but I put it to one side. Bracket your own thoughts, that’s what you have to do when you’re listening to someone. Put them in parentheses, and return to them later. It’s a good rule, and one I try to stick to.

‘It’s hard for me to talk about it.’ His voice dropped to a whisper.

I wondered what was wrong. In my view, phobias about things like buttons and spiders are fairly easy to understand, though not to cure. They’re the safe, convenient places we choose to store all our anxieties about the big things we can’t control, starting with the fact that we’re born, we die, and we don’t know why. Getting scared of buttons is easier than getting scared of that. Until it gets harder, of course.

Eventually he raised his eyes and looked straight into mine. ‘I’d need to know you better before I could . . .’

I tried to listen, but I began to feel like a startled rabbit trapped in the headlights of a car.

‘I’m hoping to find someone . . .’

A car with very big headlights on a very dark, rainy night.

‘. . . someone I can trust.’

I felt a sudden flush of heat rising up from my chest. I looked away, hoping it wouldn’t spread to my face.

Counter-transference, I told myself. When you get emotion­ally entangled with your client, start to believe that you love or hate them with a passion. Just displaced emotion from other relationships in your life. It had cropped up rather quicker than usual in this case, even before the transference. (That’s when the client starts to think they love or hate you with a passion.) But I wasn’t too worried. I was pretty sure I could handle it. The situation, if kept well under control, could even prove en­lightening, for both of us. As I said, I’ve learned to trust myself over the years.

Gwydion blinked, and I blinked, and the moment passed.

I glanced at the relief on the opposite wall. It was white, and calm, and serene. The circle seemed to sit naturally among the squares, quietly confi dent that it was in its rightful place.

‘Well, Gwydion,’ I said. I looked back at him and smiled my kindest, most sensible smile. ‘I consider myself quite trust­worthy. If you decide you want to come and see me, I’ll do my best to help.’


Excerpted from The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams. Copyright © 2013 by Charlotte Williams
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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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