Category Archives: June 2014

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah – Extract

Winter

Prologue

1972

On the banks of the mighty Columbia River, in this icy season when every breath became visible, the orchard called Belye Nochi was quiet. Dormant apple trees stretched as far as the eye could see, their sturdy roots coiled deep in the cold, fertile soil. As temperatures plummeted and color drained from land and sky, the whitened landscape caused a kind of winter blindness; one day became indistinguishable from the next. Everything froze, turned fragile.

Nowhere was the quiet more noticeable than in Meredith Whitson’s own house. At twelve, she had already discovered the empty spaces that gathered between people. She longed for her family to be like those she saw on television, where everything looked perfect and everyone got along. No one, not even her beloved father, understood how alone she often felt within these four walls, how invisible.

But tomorrow night, all of that would change.

She had come up with a brilliant plan. She had written a play based on one of her mother’s fairy tales, and she would present it at the annual Christmas party. It was exactly the kind of thing that would happen on an episode of The Partridge Family.

“How come I can’t be the star?” Nina whined. It was at least the tenth time she’d asked this question since Meredith had finished the script.

Meredith turned around in her chair and looked down at her nine-year-old sister, who was crouched on the wooden floor of their bedroom, painting a mint-green castle on an old bedsheet.

Meredith bit her lower lip, trying not to frown. The castle was too messy; not right at all. “Do we have to talk about this again, Nina?”

“But why can’t I be the peasant girl who marries the prince?”

“You know why. Jeff is playing the prince and he’s thirteen. You’d look silly next to him.”

Nina put her paintbrush in the empty soup can and sat back on her heels. With her short black hair, bright green eyes, and pale skin, she looked like a perfect little pixie. “Can I be the peasant girl next year?”

“You bet.” Meredith grinned. She loved the idea that she might be creating a family tradition. All of her friends had traditions, but not the Whitsons; they had always been different. There was no stream of relatives who came to their house on holidays, no turkey on Thanksgiving or ham on Easter, no prayers that were always said. Heck, they didn’t even know for sure how old their mom was.

It was because Mom was Russian, and alone in this country. Or at least that was what Dad said. Mom didn’t say much of anything about herself.

A knock at the door surprised Meredith. She looked up just as Jeff Cooper and her father came into the room.

Meredith felt like one of those long, floppy balloons being slowly filled with air, taking on a new form with each breath, and in this case the breath was Jeffrey Cooper. They’d been best friends since fourth grade, but lately it felt different to be around him. Exciting. Sometimes, when he looked at her, she could barely breathe. “You’re right on time for rehearsal.”

He gave her one of his heart-stopping smiles. “Just don’t tell Joey and the guys. They’d give me a ton of crap for this.”

“About rehearsal,” her dad said, stepping forward. He was still in his work clothes, a brown leisure suit with orange topstitching. Surprisingly, there was no smile lurking beneath his bushy black mustache or in his eyes. He held out the script. “This is the play you’re doing?”

Meredith rose from the chair. “Do you think she’ll like it?”

Nina stood up. Her heart-shaped face was uncharacteristically solemn. “Will she?”

The three of them looked at one another over the expanse of the Picasso-style green castle and the costumes laid out across the bed. The truth they passed among themselves, in looks alone, was that Anya Whitson was a cold woman; any warmth she had was directed at her husband. Precious little of it reached her daughters. When they were younger, Dad had tried to pretend it was otherwise, to redirect their attention like a magician, mesmerizing them with the brightness of his affection, but as with all illusions, the truth ultimately appeared behind it.

So they all knew what Meredith was asking.

“I don’t know, Meredoodle,” Dad said, reaching into his pocket for his cigarettes. “Your mother’s stories—”

“I love it when she tells them,” Meredith said.

“It’s the only time she really talks to us,” Nina added.

Dad lit a cigarette and stared at them through a swirl of gray smoke, his brown eyes narrowed. “Yeah,” he said, exhaling. “It’s just . . .”

Meredith moved toward him, careful not to step on the painting. She understood his hesitation; none of them ever really knew what would set Mom off, but this time Meredith was sure she had the answer. If there was one thing her mother loved, it was this fairy tale about a reckless peasant girl who dared to fall in love with a prince. “It only takes ten minutes, Dad. I timed it. Everyone will love it.”

“Okay, then,” he said finally.

She felt a swell of pride and hope. For once she wouldn’t spend the party in some shadowy corner of the living room reading, or in the kitchen washing dishes. Instead, she would be the center of her mother’s attention. This play would prove that Meredith had listened to every precious word Mom had ever said, even those few that were spoken softly, in the dark, at story time.

For the next hour, Meredith directed her actors through the play, although really only Jeff needed help. She and Nina had heard this fairy tale for years.

Later, when the rehearsal was over and everyone had gone their separate ways, Meredith kept working. She made a sign that read ONE NIGHT ONLY: A GRAND PLAY FOR THE HOLIDAY and listed their three names. She touched up the painted backdrop (it was impossible to fix entirely; Nina always colored outside of the lines), and then positioned it in the living room. When the set was ready, she added sequins to the tulle ballet-skirt-turned-princess-gown that she would wear at the end. It was nearly two in the morning by the time she went to bed, and even then she was so excited that it took a long time for her to fall asleep.

The next day seemed to pass slowly, but finally, at six o’clock, the guests began to arrive. It was not a big crowd, just the usual people: men and women who worked for the orchard and their families, a few neighbors, and Dad’s only living relative, his sister, Dora.

Meredith sat at the top of the stairs, staring down at the entryway below. She couldn’t help tapping her foot on the step, wondering when she could make her move.

Just as she was about to stand up, she heard a clanging, rattling sound.

Oh, no. She shot to her feet and rushed down the stairs, but it was too late.

Nina was in the kitchen, banging a pot with a metal spoon and yelling out, “Showtime!” No one knew how to steal the limelight like Nina. There was a smattering of laughter as the guests made their way from the kitchen to the living room, where the painting of the castle hung from an aluminum movie screen set up beside the massive fireplace. To the right was a large Christmas tree, decorated with drugstore lights and ornaments Nina and Meredith had made over the years. In front of the painting was their “stage”: a small wooden bridge that rested on the hardwood floor and a streetlamp made from cardboard, with a flashlight duct-taped to the top.

Meredith dimmed the lights in the room, turned on the flashlight, and then ducked behind the painted backdrop. Nina and Jeff were already there, in their costumes.

There was only a little privacy back here. If she leaned sideways, she could see several of the guests, and they could see her, but still it felt separate. When the room quieted, Meredith took a deep breath and began the narration she’d composed so painstakingly: “Her name is Vera, and she is a poor peasant girl, a nobody. She lives in a magical realm called the Snow Kingdom, but her beloved world is dying. An evil has come to this land; it rolls across the cobblestone streets in black carriages sent by a dark, evil knight who wants to destroy it all.”

Meredith made her entrance, taking care not to trip over her long, layered skirts as she took the stage. She looked out over the guests and saw her mother in the back of the room, alone somehow even in this crowd, her beautiful face blurred by cigarette smoke. For once, she was looking directly at Meredith.

“Come, sister,” Meredith said loudly, moving toward the streetlamp. “We shall not let this cold stop us.”

Nina stepped out from behind the curtain. Dressed in a ratty nightgown with a kerchief covering her hair, she wrung her hands together and looked up at Meredith. “Do you think it is the Black Knight?” she yelled, drawing a laugh from the crowd. “Is his bad magic making it so cold?”

“No. No. I am chilled at the loss of our father. When will he return?” Meredith pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and sighed dramatically. “The carriages are everywhere these days. The Black Knight is gaining power . . . people are turning to smoke before our eyes. . . .”

“Look,” Nina said, pointing toward the painted castle. “It is the prince. . . .” She managed to sound reverent.

Jeff moved into place on their little stage. In his blue sport coat and jeans, with a cheap gold crown on his wheat-blond hair, he looked so handsome that for a moment Meredith couldn’t remember her lines. She knew he was embarrassed and uncomfortable—the red in his cheeks made that obvious—but still he was here, proving what a good friend he was. And he was smiling at her as if she really were a princess.

He held out a pair of silk roses. “I have two roses for you,” he said to Meredith, his voice cracking.

She touched his hand, but before she could say her line there was a loud crash.

Meredith turned, saw her mother standing in the center of the crowd, motionless, her face pale, her blue eyes blazing. Blood dripped from her hand. She’d broken her cocktail glass, and even from here Meredith could see a shard sticking out of her mother’s palm.

“Enough,” her mother said sharply. “This is hardly entertainment for a party.”

The guests didn’t know what to do; some stood up, others remained seated. The room went quiet.

Dad made his way to Mom. He put his arm around her and pulled her close. Or he tried to; she wouldn’t bend, not even for him.

“I never should have told you those ridiculous fairy tales,” Mom said, her Russian accent sharp with anger. “I forgot how romantic and empty-headed girls can be.”

Meredith was so humiliated she couldn’t move.

She saw her father guide her mother into the kitchen, where he probably took her straight to the sink and began cleaning up her hand. The guests left as if this were the Titanic and they were rushing for lifeboats stationed just beyond the front door.

Only Jeff looked at Meredith, and she could see how embarrassed he was for her. He started toward her, still holding the two roses. “Meredith—”

She pushed past him and ran out of the room. At the end of the hall, in a shadowy corner, she skidded to a stop and stood there, breathing hard, her eyes burning with tears. She could hear her dad’s voice coming from the kitchen; he was trying to soothe his angry wife. A minute later a door clicked shut, and she knew that Jeff had gone home.

“What did you do?” Nina asked quietly, coming up beside her.

“Who knows?” Meredith said, wiping her eyes. “She’s such a bitch.”

“That’s a bad word.”

Meredith heard the trembling in Nina’s voice and knew how hard her sister was trying not to cry. She reached down and held her hand.

“What do we do? Should we say we’re sorry?”

Meredith couldn’t help thinking about the last time she’d made her mother mad and told her she was sorry. “She won’t care. Trust me.”

“So what do we do?”

Meredith tried to feel as mature as she had this morning, but her confidence was gone. She knew what would happen: Dad would calm Mom down and then he’d come up to their room and make them laugh and hold them in his big, strong arms and tell them that Mom really loved them. By the time he was done with the jokes and the stories, Meredith would want desperately to believe it. Again. “I know what I’m going to do,” she said, moving through the entryway toward the kitchen, until she could see Mom’s side—just her slim black velvet dress and her pale arm, and her white, white hair. “I’m never going to listen to one of her stupid fairy tales again.”


We don’t know how to say goodbye:
we wander on, shoulder to shoulder.
Already the sun is going down;
you’re moody. I am your shadow.

— ANNA AKHMATOVA , FROM POEMS OF AKHMATOVA,
TRANSLATED BY STANLEY KUNITZ, WITH MAX HAYWARD

One

2000

Was this what forty looked like? Really? In the past year Meredith had gone from Miss to Ma’am. Just like that, with no transition. Even worse, her skin had begun to lose its elasticity. There were tiny pleats in places that used to be smooth. Her neck was fuller, there was no doubt about it. She hadn’t gone gray yet; that was the one saving grace. Her chestnut-colored hair, cut in a no-nonsense shoulder-length bob, was still full and shiny. But her eyes gave her away. She looked tired. And not only at six in the morning.

She turned away from the mirror and stripped out of her old T-shirt and into a pair of black sweats, anklet socks, and a long-sleeved black shirt. Pulling her hair into a stumpy ponytail, she left the bathroom and walked into her darkened bedroom, where the soft strains of her husband’s snoring made her almost want to crawl back into bed. In the old days, she would have done just that, would have snuggled up against him.

Leaving the room, she clicked the door shut behind her and headed down the hallway toward the stairs.

In the pale glow of a pair of long-outdated night-lights, she passed the closed doors of her children’s bedrooms. Not that they were children anymore. Jillian was nineteen now, a sophomore at UCLA who dreamed of being a doctor, and Maddy—Meredith’s baby—was eighteen and a freshman at Vanderbilt. Without them, this house—and Meredith’s life—felt emptier and quieter than she’d expected. For nearly twenty years, she had devoted herself to being the kind of mother she hadn’t had, and it had worked. She and her daughters had become the best of friends. Their absence left her feeling adrift, a little purposeless. She knew it was silly. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have plenty to do. She just missed the girls; that was all.

She kept moving. Lately that seemed to be the best way to handle things.

Downstairs, she stopped in the living room just long enough to plug in the Christmas tree lights. In the mudroom, the dogs leaped up at her, yapping and wagging their tails.

“Luke, Leia, no jumping,” she scolded the huskies, scratching their ears as she led them to the back door. When she opened it, cold air rushed in. Snow had fallen again last night, and though it was still dark on this mid-December morning, she could make out the pale pearlescence of road and field. Her breath turned into vapory plumes.

By the time they were all outside and on their way, it was 6:10 and the sky was a deep purplish gray.

Right on time.

Meredith ran slowly at first, acclimating herself to the cold. As she did every weekday morning, she ran along the gravel road that led from her house, down past her parents’ house, and out to the old single-lane road that ended about a mile up the hill. From there, she followed the loop out to the golf course and back. Four miles exactly. It was a routine she rarely missed; she had no choice, really. Everything about Meredith was big by nature. She was tall, with broad shoulders, curvy hips, and big feet. Even her features seemed just a little too much for her pale, oval face—she had a big Julia Roberts–type mouth, huge brown eyes, full eyebrows, and thick hair. Only constant exercise, a vigilant diet, good hair products, and an industrial-sized pair of tweezers could keep her looking good.

As she turned back onto her road, the rising sun illuminated the mountains, turned their snowcapped peaks lavender and pink.

On either side of her, thousands of bare, spindly apple trees showed through the snow like brown stitches on white fabric. This fertile cleft of land had belonged to their family for fifty years, and there, in the center of it all, tall and proud, was the home in which she’d grown up. Belye Nochi. Even in the half-light it looked ridiculously out of place and ostentatious.

Meredith kept running up the hill, faster and faster, until she could barely breathe and there was a stitch in her side.

She came to a stop at her own front porch as the valley filled with bright golden light. She fed the dogs and then hurried upstairs. She was just going into the bathroom as Jeff was coming out. Wearing only a towel, with his graying blond hair still dripping wet, he turned sideways to let her pass, and she did the same. Neither one of them spoke.

By 7:20, she was drying her hair, and by 7:30—right on time—she was dressed for work in a pair of black jeans and a fitted green blouse. A little eyeliner, some blush and mascara, a coat of lipstick, and she was ready to go.

Downstairs, she found Jeff at the kitchen table, sitting in his regular chair, reading The New York Times. The dogs were asleep at his feet.

She went to the coffeepot and poured herself a cup. “You need a refill?”

“I’m good,” he said without looking up.

Meredith stirred soy milk into her coffee, watching the color change. It occurred to her that she and Jeff only talked at a distance lately, like strangers—or disillusioned partners—and only about work or the kids. She tried idly to remember the last time they’d made love, and couldn’t.

Maybe that was normal. Certainly it was. When you’d been married as long as they had, there were bound to be quiet times. Still, it saddened her sometimes to remember how passionate they used to be. She’d been fourteen on their first date (they’d gone to see Young Frankenstein; it was still one of their favorites), and to be honest, that was the last time she’d ever really looked at another guy. It was strange when she thought about that now; she didn’t consider herself a romantic woman, but she’d fallen in love practically at first sight. He’d been a part of her for as long as she could remember.

They’d married early—too early, really—and she’d followed him to college in Seattle, working nights and weekends in smoky bars to pay tuition. She’d been happy in their cramped, tiny U District apartment. Then, when they were seniors, she’d gotten pregnant. It had terrified her at first. She’d worried that she was like her mother, and that parenthood wouldn’t be a good thing. But she discovered, to her profound relief, that she was the complete opposite of her own mother. Perhaps her youth had helped in that. God knew Mom had not been young when Meredith was born.

Jeff shook his head. It was a minute gesture, barely even a movement, but she saw it. She had always been attuned to him, and lately their mutual disappointments seemed to create sound, like a high-pitched whistle that only she could hear.

“What?” she said.

“Nothing.”

“You didn’t shake your head over nothing. What’s the matter?”

“I just asked you something.”

“I didn’t hear you. Ask me again.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Fine.” She took her coffee and headed toward the dining room.

It was something she’d done a hundred times, and yet just then, as she passed under the old-fashioned ceiling light with its useless bit of plastic mistletoe, her view changed.

She saw herself as if from a distance: a forty-year-old woman, holding a cup of coffee, looking at two empty places at the table, and at the husband who was still here, and for a split second she wondered what other life that woman could have lived. What if she hadn’t come home to run the orchard and raise her children? What if she hadn’t gotten married so young? What kind of woman could she have become?

And then it was gone like a soap bubble, and she was back where she belonged.

“Will you be home for dinner?” “Aren’t I always?”

“Seven o’clock,” she said.

“By all means,” he said, turning the page. “Let’s set a time.”

*****

Meredith was at her desk by eight o’clock. As usual, she was the first to arrive and went about the cubicle-divided space on the warehouse’s second floor flipping on lights. She passed by her dad’s office—empty now— pausing only long enough to glance at the plaques by his door. Thirteen times he’d been voted Grower of the Year and his advice was still sought out by competitors on a regular basis. It didn’t matter that he only occasionally came into the office, or that he’d been semi-retired for ten years. He was still the face of the Belye Nochi orchard, the man who had pioneered Golden Delicious apples in the early sixties, Granny Smiths in the seventies, and championed the Braeburn and Fuji in the nineties. His designs for cold storage had revolutionized the business and helped make it possible to export the very best apples to world markets.

She had had a part to play in the company’s growth and success, to be sure. Under her leadership, the cold storage warehouse had been expanded and a big part of their business was now storing fruit for other growers. She’d turned the old roadside apple stand into a gift shop that sold hundreds of locally made craft items, specialty foods, and Belye Nochi memorabilia. At this time of year—the holidays—when trainloads of tourists arrived in Leavenworth for the world-famous treelighting ceremony, more than a few found their way to the gift shop.

The first thing she did was pick up the phone to call her youngest daughter. It was just past ten in Tennessee.

“Hello?” Maddy grumbled.

“Good morning,” Meredith said brightly. “It sounds like someone slept in.”

“Oh. Mom. Hi. I was up late last night. Studying.”

“Madison Elizabeth,” was all Meredith had to say to make her point.

Maddy sighed. “Okay. So it was a Lambda Chi party.”

“I know how fun it all is, and how much you want to experience every moment of college, but your first final is next week. Tuesday morning, right?”

“Right.”

“You have to learn to balance schoolwork and fun. So get your lily-white ass out of bed and get to class. It’s a life skill—partying all night and still getting up on time.”

“The world won’t end if I miss one Spanish class.”

“Madison.”

Maddy laughed. “Okay, okay. I’m getting up. Spanish 101, here I come. Hasta la vista . . . ba-by.”

Meredith smiled. “I’ll call on Thursday and find out how your speech went. And call your sister. She’s stressed out about her organic chemistry test.”

“Okay, Mom. I love you.”

“Love you, too, princess.”

Meredith hung up the phone feeling better. For the next three hours, she threw herself into work. She was rereading the latest crop report when her intercom buzzed.

“Meredith? Your dad is on line one.”

“Thanks, Daisy.” She picked up the call. “Hi, Dad.”

“Mom and I were wondering if you could come to the house for lunch today.”

“I’m swamped here, Dad—”

“Please?”

Meredith had never been able to deny her father. “Okay. But I have to be back by one.”

“Excellent,” he said, and she could hear the smile in his voice.

She hung up and went back to work. Lately, with production up and demand down, and costs for both export and transportation skyrocketing, she often spent her days putting out one fire after another, and today was no exception. By noon, a low-grade stress headache had crawled into the space at the base of her skull and begun to growl. Still, she smiled at her employees as she left her office and walked through the cold warehouse.

In less than ten minutes, she pulled up in front of her parents’ garage.

The house was like something out of a Russian fairy tale, with its turret-like two-story veranda and elaborate fretwork trim, especially this time of year, when the eaves and railings glittered with Christmas lights. The hammered copper roof was dulled today by the gray winter weather, but on a bright day it shone like liquid gold. Surrounded by tall, elegant poplar trees and situated on a gentle rise that overlooked their valley, this house was so famous that tourists often stopped to photograph it.

Leave it to her mother to build something so absurdly out of place. A Russian dacha, or summerhouse, in Western Washington State. Even the orchard’s name was absurd. Belye Nochi.

White Nights indeed. The nights here were as dark as new asphalt. Not that Mom cared about what was around her. She got her way, that was all. Whatever Anya Whitson wanted, her husband gave to her, and apparently she’d wanted a fairy-tale castle and an orchard with an unpronounceable Russian name.

Meredith knocked and went inside. The kitchen was empty; a big pot of soup simmered on the stove.

In the living room, light spilled through the two-story rounded wall of windows at the north end of the room—the famous Belye Nochi turret. Wood floors gleamed with the golden beeswax that Mom insisted on using, even though it turned the floors into a skating rink if you dared to walk in stockinged feet. A huge stone fireplace dominated the center wall; clustered around it was a grouping of richly upholstered antique sofas and chairs. Above the fireplace hung an oil painting of a Russian troika—a romantic-looking carriage drawn by matching horses—sailing through a field of snow. Pure Doctor Zhivago. To her left were dozens of pictures of Russian churches, and below them was her mother’s “Holy Corner,” where a table held a display of antique icons and a single candle that burned year-round.

She found her father in the back of the room, alongside the heavily decorated Christmas tree, in his favorite spot. He lay stretched out on the burgundy mohair cushions of the ottoman bed, reading. His hair, what he had left of it at eighty-five, stuck out from his pink scalp in white tufts. Too many decades in the sun had blotched and pleated his skin and he had a basset-hound look even when he was smiling, but the sad countenance fooled no one. Everyone loved Evan Whitson. It was impossible not to.

At her entrance, his face lit up. He reached out and squeezed her hand tightly, then let go. “Your mom will be so glad to see you.”

Meredith smiled. It was the game they’d played for years. Dad pretended that Mom loved Meredith and Meredith pretended to believe him. “Great. Is she upstairs?”

“I couldn’t keep her out of the garden this morning.”

Meredith wasn’t surprised. “I’ll get her.”

She left her father in the living room and walked through the kitchen to the formal dining room. Through the French doors, she saw an expanse of snow-covered ground, with acres of dormant apple trees in the distance. Closer, beneath the icicle-draped branches of a fifty-year-old magnolia tree, was a small rectangular garden defined by antique wrought-iron fencing. Its ornate gate was twined with brown vines; come summer, that gate would be a profusion of green leaves and white flowers. Now it glittered with frost.

And there she was: her eighty-something-year-old mother, bundled up in blankets, sitting on the black bench in her so-called winter garden. A light snow began to fall; tiny flakes blurred the scene into an impressionistic painting where nothing looked solid enough to touch. Sculpted bushes and a single birdbath were covered in snow, giving the garden a strange, otherworldly look. Not surprisingly, her mother sat in the middle of it all, motionless, her hands clasped in her lap.

As a child it had scared Meredith—all that solitude in her mother— but as she got older it had begun to embarrass, then irritate her. A woman of her mother’s age had no business sitting alone in the cold. Her mother claimed it was because of her ruined vision, but Meredith didn’t believe that. It was true that her mother’s eyes didn’t process color—she saw only white and black and shades of gray—but that had never struck Meredith, even as a girl, as a reason for staring at nothing. She opened the door and went out into the cold. Her boots sank in the ankle-deep snow; here and there, crusty patches crunched underneath and more than once she almost slipped. “You shouldn’t be out here, Mom,” she said, coming up beside her. “You’ll catch pneumonia.” “It takes more cold than this to give me pneumonia. This is barely below freezing.”

Meredith rolled her eyes. It was the sort of ridiculous comment her mother always made. “I’ve only got an hour for lunch, so you’d better come in now.” Her voice sounded sharp in the softness of the falling snow, and she winced, wishing she had rounded her vowels more, tempered her voice. What was it about her mother that brought out the worst in her? “Did you know he invited me for lunch?”

“Of course,” her mother said, but Meredith heard the lie in it.

Her mother rose from the bench in a single fluid motion, like some ancient goddess used to being revered and adored. Her face was remarkably smooth and wrinkle-free, her skin flawless and almost translucent. She had the kind of bone structure that made other women envious. But it was her eyes that defined her beauty. Deep-set and fringed by thick lashes, they were a remarkable shade of aqua flecked with bits of gold. Meredith was sure that no one who had seen those eyes ever forgot them. How ironic it was that eyes of such remarkable hue were unable to see color.

Meredith took her mother’s elbow and led her away from the bench; only then, when they were walking, did she notice that her mother’s hands were bare, and turning blue.

“Good God. Your hands are blue. You should have on gloves in this cold—”

“You do not know cold.”

“Whatever, Mom.” Meredith bustled her mother up the back steps and into the warmth of the house. “Maybe you should take a bath to warm up.”

“I do not want to be warm, thank you. It is December fourteenth.”

“Fine,” Meredith said, watching her shivering mother go to the stove to stir the soup. The ragged gray wool blanket fell to the floor in a heap around her.

Meredith set the table, and for a few precious moments there was noise in the room, an approximation of a relationship, at least.

“My girls,” Dad said, coming into the kitchen. He looked pale and slight, his once-wide shoulders whittled down to nothing by weight loss. Moving forward, he put a hand on each woman’s shoulder, bringing Meredith and Mom in close. “I love it when we’re together for lunch.”

Mom smiled tightly. “As do I,” she said in that clipped, accented voice of hers.

“And me,” Meredith said.

“Good. Good.” Dad nodded and went to the table.

Mom brought a tray of still-warm feta cheese corn bread slices, drizzled with butter, put a piece on each plate, and then brought over bowls of soup.

“I walked the orchard this morning,” Dad said.

Meredith nodded and took a seat beside him. “I guess you noticed the back of Field A?”

“Yep. That hillside’s been giving us some trouble.”

“I’ve got Ed and Amanda on it. Don’t worry about the harvest.”

“I wasn’t, actually. I was thinking of something else.”

She sipped her soup; it was rich and delicious. Homemade lamb meatballs in a savory saffron broth with silken egg noodles. If she didn’t exercise extreme caution, she’d eat it all and have to run another mile this afternoon. “Oh, yeah?”

“I want to change that field to grapes.”

Meredith slowly lowered her spoon. “Grapes?”

“The Golden Delicious are not our best apple anymore.” Before she could interrupt, he held up his hand. “I know. I know. We built this place on Golden Delicious, but things change. Hell, it’s almost 2001, Meredith; wine is the new thing. I think we could make ice wine and late harvest at the very least.”

“In these times, Dad? The Asian markets are tightening and it’s costing us a fortune to transport our fruit. Competition is increasing. Hell, our profits were down twelve percent last year and this year doesn’t look any better. We’re barely hanging on.”

“You should listen to your father,” Mom said.

“Oh, please, Mom. You haven’t even been inside the warehouse since we updated the cooling system. And when was the last time you even looked at one of the year-end statements?”

“Enough,” Dad said with a sigh. “I didn’t want to start an argument.”

Meredith stood up. “I need to get back to work.”

Meredith carried her bowl over to the sink, where she washed it. Then she put the leftover soup in a Tupperware container, stored it in the impossibly full refrigerator, and washed the pot. It hit the strainer with a clang that seemed loud in the quiet room. “That was delicious, Mom. Thanks.” She said a quick good-bye and left the kitchen. In the entryway, she put her coat back on. She was out on the porch, breathing in the sharp, frigid air, when her dad came up behind her.

“You know how she gets in December and January. Winters are hard for her.”

“I know.”

He pulled her into his arms and held her tightly. “You two need to try harder.”

Meredith couldn’t help being hurt by that. She’d heard it from him all her life; just once she wanted to hear him say that Mom should try harder. “I will,” she said, completing their little fairy tale as she always did. And she would try. She always did, but she and her mother would never be close. There was just too much water under that bridge. “I love you, Dad,” she said, kissing his cheek.

“I love you, too, Meredoodle.” He grinned. “And think about grapes. Maybe I can still be a vintner before I die.”

She hated jokes like that. “Very funny.” Turning away, she went to her car and started the engine. Putting the SUV in reverse, she swung around. Through the lacy snow on the windshield, she saw her parents through the living room window. Dad pulled her mother into his arms and kissed her. They began to dance haltingly, although there was probably no music in the house. Her dad didn’t need any; he always said he carried love songs in his heart.

Meredith drove away from the intimate scene, but the memory of what she’d seen stayed with her. All the rest of the workday, while she analyzed different facets of the operation, looking for ways to maximize profit, and as she sat through endless management and scheduling meetings, she found herself remembering how in love her parents had looked. The truth was, she had never been able to understand how a woman could be capable of passionately adoring her husband while simultaneously despising her children. No, that wasn’t right. Mom didn’t despise Meredith and Nina. She just didn’t care about them. “Meredith?”

She looked up sharply. For a moment there, she’d been so lost in her own life that she’d forgotten where she was. At her desk. Reading an insect report. “Oh. Daisy. I’m sorry. I guess I didn’t hear you knock.”

“I’m going home.”

“Is it that late already?” Meredith glanced at the clock. It was 6:37. “Shit. I mean, dang it. I’m late.”

Daisy laughed. “You’re always staying late.”

Meredith began organizing her paperwork into neat piles. “Drive safely, Miss Daisy”—it was an old joke but they both smiled—“and remember Josh from the Apple Commission will be here at nine for a meeting. We’ll need donuts and coffee.”

“You got it. Good night.”

Meredith got her desk ready for tomorrow and then headed out.

Snow was falling in earnest now, blurring the view through her windshield. The wipers were moving as fast as they could, but it was still difficult to see. Every pair of oncoming headlights momentarily blinded her. Even though she knew this road like the back of her hand, she slowed down and hugged the shoulder. It reminded her of the one and only time she’d tried to teach Maddy to drive in the snow. The memory made her smile. It’s snow, Mom. Not black ice. I don’t have to drive this slow. I could walk home faster.

That was Maddy. Always in a hurry.

At home, Meredith slammed the door shut behind her and hurried into the kitchen. A quick glance at the clock told her she was late. Again.

She put her purse on the counter. “Jeff?”

“I’m in here.”

She followed his voice into the living room. He was at the wet bar they’d installed in the late eighties, making himself a drink. “Sorry I’m late. The snow—”

“Yeah,” he said. They both knew she’d left late. “Do you want a drink?”

“Sure. White wine.” She looked at him, not knowing what she even felt. He was as handsome as ever, with dark blond hair that was only now beginning to gray at the temples, a strong, square jaw, and steel-gray eyes that always seemed to be smiling. He didn’t work out and ate like a horse, but he still had one of those wiry, rawhide bodies that never seemed to age. He was dressed in his usual style—faded Levi’s jeans and an old Pearl Jam T-shirt.

He handed her a glass of wine. “How was your day?”

“Dad wants to plant grapes. And Mom was in the winter garden again. She’s going to catch pneumonia.”

“Your mom is colder than any snowfield.”

For a moment, she felt the years that bound them, all the connections that time had created. He’d formed an opinion of her mother more than two decades ago, and nothing had happened to change it. “Amen to that.” She leaned back against the wall. All at once the crazy/ hectic/hurried pattern of her day—her week, her month—caught up with her and she closed her eyes.

“I got a chapter written today. It’s short. Only about seven pages, but I think it’s good. I made you a copy. Meredith? Mere?”

She opened her eyes and found him looking at her. A small frown creased the skin between his eyes, made her wonder if he’d said something important. She tried to recall but couldn’t. “Sorry. Long day.”

“You’re having a lot of those lately.”

She couldn’t tell if there was a hint of accusation in his voice or just a simple honesty. “You know what winter is like.”

“And spring. And summer.”

There was her answer: accusation. Even last year she would have asked him what was wrong with them. She would have told him how lost she felt in the gray minutiae of her everyday life, and how much she missed the girls. But lately that kind of intimacy felt impossible. She wasn’t quite sure how it had happened, or when, but distance seemed to be spreading between them like spilled ink, staining everything. “Yeah, I guess.”

“I’m going to the office,” he said suddenly, reaching for the jacket he’d draped over the back of the chair.

“Now?”

“Why not?”

She wondered if it was really a question. Did he want her to stop him, to give him a reason to stay, or did he want to leave? She wasn’t sure, and really, she didn’t care right now. It would be nice to take a hot bath and have a glass of wine and not have to try to think of what to say over dinner. Even better not to have to cook dinner at all. “No reason.”

“Yeah,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “That’s what I thought.”


Excerpted from Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah. Copyright © 2010 by Kristin Hannah.

First published 2010 by St Martin’s Press, New York. This edition published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 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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Smart by Kim Slater – Extract

Smart

1

Dead in the Water

It just looked like a pile of rags, floating on the water.

Jean sat on the bench with the brass plaque on. It said: In Memory of Norman Reeves, who spent many happy hours here.

The plaque means Norman Reeves is dead, but it doesn’t actually say that.

Jean held her head in her hands and her body was all jerky, like when you are laughing or crying. I guessed she was crying and I was right.

‘He was my friend,’ she sobbed.

I looked around but Jean was alone. People around here say Jean is ‘cuckoo’. That means mental. She used to be a nurse that delivered babies. She still knows loads of stuff she learned from medical books but no one believes her.

‘Who?’ I asked.

Jean pointed to the rags.

I went to the edge of the embankment to look. There was a stripy bag half in the water. I saw a face with a bushy beard in the middle of the rags, under the ripples. One eye was open, one was closed.

I freaked out. The sea sound started in my head and I ran right past the bridge and back again but there was nobody to help. I’m not supposed to run like mad because it can start my asthma off.

‘When the sea noise comes in your head,’ Miss Crane says, ‘it is important to stay calm and breathe.’

I stopped running. I tried to stay calm and breathe. I used my inhaler.

Jean was still crying when I got back.

‘He was my friend,’ she said again. I picked up a long stick and took it over to the riverbank. I poked at the face but not near the eyes.

‘What are you doing?’ Jean shouted from the bench. ‘I’m doing a test to see if it’s a balloon,’ I yelled back.

It felt puffy and hard at the same time, so I knew it was Jean’s friend’s head.

‘Is it a balloon?’ shouted Jean.

A woman with a dog was coming.

When she got near I said, ‘Jean’s friend is in the river.’

She gave me a funny look, like she might ignore me and carry on walking. Then she came a bit nearer and looked at the river. She started screaming.

I went for a walk up the embankment to stay calm and breathe. Some Canada geese flew down and skidded into the water. They didn’t care about the rags and the puffy face. They just got on with it.

When I got back, a policeman and a policewoman were talking to the lady with the dog. Jean was still sitting on the bench but nobody was talking to her.

‘That’s him,’ the woman said, and pointed at me. ‘What’s your name, son?’ The policeman asked.

‘I’m not your son,’ I said. ‘My dad is dead from a disease that made him drink cider, even in the morning.’

The policeman and the policewoman looked at each other.

‘Can you tell us what happened, love?’ The policewoman had a kind face, like Mum when she wasn’t rushing to go to work. She nodded her head towards the river. ‘Is that how you found him?’

‘It looked like rags,’ I said.

‘He was my friend,’ Jean shouted from the bench. The policewoman wrote down my name and address. ‘Was he just like this, when you got here?’ asked the policeman.

‘The head was a bit more turned towards the bridge,’ I said. ‘Before I poked it with the stick.’

‘Stick?’

‘I had to see if it was a balloon or a real head,’ I said.

The woman with the dog shrieked. She even made the policewoman jump.

‘It’s definitely a real head,’ I said.

‘Did you see anyone else around here but the tramp lady?’ asked the policeman.

‘Jean was a nurse,’ I said. ‘She’s not mental.’

A white van pulled up. It had the words Police Diving Unit on the side and a blue flashing light. Even when it stood still, the light kept flashing.

‘Kieran,’ said the policeman. ‘Did you see anyone else hanging around here?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘How many divers will go in?’

The side of the van slid back and two police divers got out. They had flippers on and everything.

‘They’ll need breathing apparatus on if they’re going to search the water for clues,’ I said.

‘No need for that,’ the policewoman said in a low voice, like she didn’t want me to hear. ‘Poor old bogger probably fell in after one too many.’

A man got out of the front of the police van and took some photographs of Jean’s friend in the water. Then the divers put up some screens while they pulled the body out of the river.

‘Why are they hiding it?’ I said. ‘I’ve already seen it.’

‘And poked it,’ said the policeman as they moved away. ‘Don’t go touching dead bodies in future.’

There were some people gathering on the far bank.

One man had binoculars.

The police emptied the dead man’s stripy bag and spread the things out on the concrete. There was a blanket, some socks and an empty packet of cheese straws.

Two older boys from my school walked up and stood watching.

‘What you been up to, Downs? You topped somebody?’ asked one of them.

‘I haven’t got Down’s,’ I said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my chromosomes.’

‘Are you sure about that, Downs?’ asked the other boy.

They fell about laughing.

2

The Letter

One day I’m going to be a reporter for the Evening Post. That’s why I started walking straight home, so I could write stuff down.

I don’t write in my notebook all the time. I used to only write in it when bad things happened, like when Grandma stopped coming round.

But now I write down all the interesting things that happen too, so the Editor of the Post will want me to work for him when I leave school. I can show him my notebook as evidence of my reporting skills.

The bad thing at the river was definitely interesting.

I can do the tiniest writing in the world; even I can’t read it sometimes. Nobody can tell other people what I’ve said, which is the best thing. You can’t trust people but you can trust your notebook.

I ripped out all the pages of my old Beano annual and I hide my notebook in there. Then I put the annual in the middle of a pile of other annuals under the bed. Nobody will ever find it.

See, this is why I like writing in my notebook. I can talk about anything that’s ever been invented and no one can tell me off.

I. Am. In. Charge.

You can write sentences with only one word in them, like that. It’s your choice.

I live in Nottingham. Not right in the middle, where the castle is, just at the edge of the middle.

‘Just outside the city centre,’ Miss Crane says.

I like saying ‘edge of the middle’ better. It feels more like a place.

Robin Hood came from Nottingham. He lived in Sherwood Forest and formed a merry band of men, including Little John, who was massive. Yorkshire tried to steal Robin Hood. They said he came from there but it’s been proven by scientists that he was from Nottingham.

I stopped walking for a minute and looked back at the embankment and the flashing blue lights of the police van.

Sometimes, when I look at the river I imagine it is a long, thin piece of sea. If you followed it for nearly a year, you could reach Australia. It’s been here as long as Robin Hood. He might have stood in some of the exact same places as I do, looking at the river. I said that once, to my older brother.

‘Course he did,’ he replied. ‘You daft prat.’

Ryan is my older brother but not a proper one. I’ve got a different mum and dad to him.

My dad died. I only know him because of the photographs that Mum kept to show me. I was just a baby then. Miss Crane says our brains store away everything that’s happened to us, but you can’t remember everything because some memories get locked up in a bit of your brain you don’t use, called the ‘subconscious’.

In my subconscious, there are pictures and films of my dad playing with me and tucking me into bed. Nobody can take them away and burn them. I wish I could get them out of my locked bit of brain to look at again.

When I got home I stopped at the living-room door on my way upstairs, but nobody turned round. Mum wasn’t back from work yet, so I couldn’t tell her about what had happened. Sometimes she leaves for work before I wake up and doesn’t come back till after I’m in bed, even on the weekends.

Tony was lying on the settee, smoking, with his eyes nearly closed, and Ryan was playing Call of Duty. The gunfire was very loud. Louder than Mum liked it.

Mum says I have to call Tony ‘Dad’, but secretly, in my head, I always say ‘Tony’ straight after, so it cancels it out.

Ryan was supposed to go to college to do Media Studies at the beginning of September. After two days he said he didn’t like it, so Tony said he could stop going. After that, he played soldier games all day long and nearly all night. When he went up each wave, he went barmy, like he was a real soldier in Afghanistan.

‘Yes! Who’s the daddy?’ he kept saying and punching my arm.

When you say that, it means you think you’re the best of anyone in the whole world at something. Ryan thought he was the best at Call of Duty.

‘Dean Shelton in my class is on the last wave,’ I told him.

‘Shut your mouth,’ he yelled. ‘Before I bleeping smack you one.’

Writing ‘bleep’ takes all the power out of swear words.

A long, long time ago, someone decided what word to use for every single thing there is. For a wooden thing you sit on, they decided that word would be CHAIR. But what if they had decided it would be called a B*****D? Then you would sit on a B*****D and call someone a CHAIR if you hated them.

‘That’s true,’ Miss Crane had said when I’d asked her about it at school. ‘It’s the meaning we attach to a word that’s important.’

When I’ve worked at the Evening Post for a bit, I want to go and work for Sky.

Sky is ‘First for Breaking News’. All the politicians want to talk to Sky first, even before the BBC.

I like Jeremy Thompson but I don’t want to present the news like him. I want to do a job like Martin Brunt.

He’s my favourite on the Sky News team.

Martin Brunt is the Crime Correspondent. He comes on when very bad stuff happens, like murders. If he lived around here, he would be down at the river now, reporting back to viewers about Jean’s friend, who was dead in the water.

The Sky News cameraman would zoom in on the rags and they’d bring criminal experts into the studio to say what kind of person might have killed the man. The experts are called ‘criminologists’. They even know what car the murderer drives and whether he still lives with his mum and dad.

In my room, I wrote down all the evidence I’d seen so far in my notebook. I did it in very small writing so I could fit it all in. ‘Evidence’ means every single thing that has happened. Sometimes on CSI, they don’t even realize something is evidence until later on. Then they look at their notes to check it out.

I wrote down all the people I’d seen that morning, even Jean. At this stage, everyone was a suspect. Really, I knew Jean hadn’t done anything because she used to be a nurse, but sometimes witnesses on Sky News said, ‘I can’t believe it – she was just an ordinary woman who lived next door.’

Jean doesn’t live anywhere. People don’t like the homeless; they say they stink and should get a job.

‘I’d like to see half of them get a job if they were starving hungry and freezing cold,’ Jean had said, when I’d told her.

Jean used to have a big house in Wollaton with her husband and her son Tim, who wanted to be a pilot. When Tim was killed in a motorbike accident, Jean started to drink so it wouldn’t hurt as much. Her husband left her and Jean lost her job.

‘I had a mental breakdown,’ she said, when we were sitting together on the embankment one day. ‘When I got better, I had no husband, no job and no house.’

That’s how Jean ended up homeless. It doesn’t mean she killed her friend.

 

The next day, I told Miss Crane all about the homeless man’s murder.

‘He might have just fallen into the water,’ Miss Crane said. ‘You mustn’t jump to conclusions.’

Falling into the water sounded boring. I felt sure Martin Brunt could find the killer.

I wrote him a letter in class.

Dear Martin Brunt,

There has been a death murder of a homeless person in our river.

The man was Jean’s friend. Can you come with your cameraman and bring the Criminology experts?

After I’ve worked at the Evening Post for a bit, I want to work with you at Sky News.

Yours sincerely, Kieran Woods Class 9

c/o Meadows Comprehensive School, Nottingham

Miss Crane was pleased I’d remembered that it’s ‘Yours sincerely’ when you know someone’s name and ‘Yours faithfully’ when you don’t. Before I put the letter in an envelope, I crossed out ‘death’ and wrote ‘murder’.

Miss Crane didn’t see me do it.

3

Evidence

When I got in from school Mum still wasn’t home, so I went straight to my room and read through my notes again to make sure that I hadn’t missed any important pieces of evidence. Then I got my sketchbook out.

I keep this hidden under the bed next to my notebook. It contains pictures I’ve drawn of stuff that some people might not want others to see.

‘Sensitive information’, Miss Crane calls it.

You can show sensitive information very well in pictures, if you are good at drawing. You don’t need words.

I’m the best at drawing in my class and the best in the whole school. I’m not even being big-headed. I can look at something once or twice, then draw it with my pencils so it looks like a photograph.

It’s easy-peasy.

I like my drawing pencils. I keep them in a special wooden box. There are twelve pencils but the matching sharpener is missing. The gold lettering on the box lid says: Graphite Pencil Sketching Set 5B–5H. I won them last year at school in a competition called ‘Best Young Artist’.

All the schools in Nottingham were in the competition.

Only the people who were good at drawing got to send a picture in.

The writer Julia Donaldson judged it. She works with an illustrator who draws awesome pictures so she knows what good drawings look like.

I won the bit of the competition for people my age and a bit older.

‘The under-sixteens category,’ said Miss Crane. There was a prize ceremony for the winners at the Council House. Mum said she’d try and get there but her and Tony had had a row and she didn’t want everyone to see her eye. When I went up on stage to get my certificate and pencil box, everyone clapped like they knew me. I pretended Mum was there and waved.

Afterwards, while the others were standing with their parents, Miss Crane stayed with me. We had a glass of pretend champagne and little bits of puffy pastry with this tasty filling in. It was brilliant.

When I got home after the ceremony, nobody was in. I sat at the kitchen table waiting for Mum, looking at my drawing and pencil box prize. I felt warm and calm inside. Then the back door opened and before I could hide my stuff, Ryan came in.

‘Let’s see,’ he said, and grabbed my picture. After a minute he asked, ‘Could you teach me to draw?’ His voice was small. I looked at him but he wasn’t grinning – he was serious.

The back door opened again and Tony stomped into the kitchen. He stopped dead in front of us.

Ryan looked at his feet. ‘I was just—’

‘Just what?’

‘Just telling him to get his stupid stuff off the table,’ Ryan said, and he swept my drawing and pencil box on to the floor.

I scrabbled to grab my stuff before Ryan could destroy it. The pencils were rolling everywhere but I managed to get them all.

When I got upstairs, I realized that the sharpener was missing. Mum helped me look for it when she got home and she even asked Tony and Ryan if they had seen it but they both said no. It was just gone.

My drawing pencils all look the same but they all have different sorts of lead to draw with. You use the really hard pencil leads for tiny detailed drawing, like eyes. The softer ones are good for filling in, like if you’re drawing the sky. The other thing that is really important when sketching is how much you push the pencil down on to your paper. Different pressures make for different shades on your drawing. It’s all very complex if you don’t know what you’re doing.

My favourite artist is a man called Laurence Stephen Lowry. People shortened it to L. S. Lowry. He was an even better drawer than me. Grandma was going to take me to see some of his real-life pictures at a gallery in Manchester. It was before she fell out with Mum and Tony.

People think Lowry just painted matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs. There was even a song about it. But he didn’t. He painted all sorts of things and did fantastic sketches.

When I won the Best Young Artist competition, Miss Crane bought me a massive book called L. S. Lowry: The Art and the Artist, by T. G. Rosenthal. T. G. Rosenthal knows even more about Lowry than I do.

When Lowry’s mum died, he got very sad. He stopped painting people and dogs. He painted the sea but didn’t put any boats on the water. He painted houses that nobody lived in. They were falling to bits and sinking down into the ground.

When I look at Lowry’s An Island, it makes my tummy go all funny. In it is a big, old house that used to be grand, standing alone on a little island surrounded by water. Even though it is a house and not a person, it still looks sad and lost.

When I look at this painting, it feels like something is pressing down on my chest. I go all quiet inside, like when I’m curling up under my blanket, away from everyone.

That’s what Lowry can do to you without saying a single word.

I picked out a pencil and started to draw all the scenes of evidence from down at the river, like a comic strip, filling the page with little boxes. I drew Jean like one of Lowry’s matchstick characters. She got to be in every box.

Ryan’s video game was booming downstairs. I could tell if he had shot someone or detonated a bomb by the different noises. While I was drawing, I thought about Mrs Cartwright next door. She has ulcerated legs so can’t get upstairs. She even sleeps in her living room, which is joined on to ours, so she can never escape Ryan’s noise.

I wanted to draw some pictures of Tony and Ryan in the living room. Ryan would be playing on his game and Tony would be half asleep. Neither of them would see the pack of wild dogs sneaking in at the door. There would be Japanese Akitas, pit bulls and Dobermanns. The dogs would pounce on them both at the same time.

No one would be able to hear Tony and Ryan screaming because of the loud noise of the Xbox. Not even Mrs Cartwright.

The dogs would rip them both to shreds and eat them. Later, when the dogs were gone, I would sneak downstairs and clean up. When Mum came home, she’d be glad it was just me and her again, with no one to upset her. She wouldn’t even be bothered they’d both been eaten.

I saved the pictures in my head to draw another day, and concentrated on the murder instead.

I drew from when I first got down to the river and saw Jean crying on the bench, to the divers getting the body out of the water. It took up two full pages of my sketchpad.

When I was finished, I had very detailed notes and drawings.

I had remembered all the little bits of evidence. I packed matchstick people into the scenes, but I kept the background white like Lowry mostly did and just drew the river and close-ups of where the murder took place. This would make any clues much easier to spot.

Martin Brunt was going to be very pleased.


Excerpted from Smart by Kim Slater. Copyright © 2014 by Kim Slater.
First published 2014 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 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.

The Summer Without You by Karen Swan – Extract

The Summer Without You

Chapter One

‘We are not breaking up.’

‘No? What else do you call disappearing halfway round the world for half a year without the person you’ve spent nearly half your life with?’ Rowena Tipton did her best not to let the tears drop from her lashes, but her voice sliding up to soprano was just as telling.

‘Not a half-measure?’ Matt tried joking, before seeing the look he knew all too well that told him now wasn’t the time. He rubbed her hands which always felt so small in his. ‘I call it a new beginning.’

‘But why do we need a new beginning? We had one eleven years ago. I like our middle.’ She hiccupped, letting her hair blow in front of her face as she stared back at him with her soulful dark brown eyes – ‘doe eyes’, he’d always said – willing him to see reason. But the omens weren’t good. It would be so much easier to talk him out of this notion under a whimsical blue sky, clouds frolicking in the wind above them and daisy chains round their wrists – it would mean her cleavage was out for a start. He could never get his way against that. But she was wrapped and swaddled, and the weather was as bleak as his words, the sky as grey as an old towel, the ancient oaks that stood around them like elders still bare and budless. Everything seemed lifeless and spent. She strained to hear the first birds of spring on their return migration, scanned the clodded ground for flowers, but the daffodils had made a poor showing this year, the bluebells not yet pushing their sharp green tips above the earth. It was mid-March but nature seemed suspended. The dormancy had a scattering effect every bit as effective as a gunshot and the park was deserted, driving families inside to huddle round the last of the winter fires and leaving the unseen sun to slip from the sky for another day.

Matt tucked her hair behind her ear, his hand cupping her head so that she could rest her cheek against his palm. His tone, when he spoke, was calming, his eyes steady upon hers. ‘Because our middle is flabby. We’re in a rut, baby. We need to freshen things up.’

‘Which is code for “see other people”, you mean?’

‘No, that is not what I mean. This is not a break-up, Ro.’

‘What is it, then? You have to call it something. It’s not something without a name. Nothing’s anything without a name. I mean, how will I explain to peo—’

‘It’s a pause.’

She blinked at him, her lashes dewy with poised tears. ‘A pause?’

‘Before we commit to each other for the rest of our lives, it’s a pause, an opportunity for us both to be selfish for the last time.’

‘But I like being unselfish!’ she wailed.

Matt nodded, as though he’d predicted every one of her responses. ‘I know you do; it’s one of the things I’ll miss about you. But I also want to miss you, Ro. I want to feel that –’ he shrugged, reaching for the word ‘– I don’t know, that yearning for you again, and I can’t if we’re lying together in the same bed every night and sitting on the same park bench in the same park every Sunday morning.’

‘So you have got tired of me.’ The wail was replaced with a wobble.

‘No!’ he laughed, exasperated. His hand dropped from her cheek and he sat back, draping his arms over the bench and looking out over the Ham corner of Windsor Great Park. The wind blew Ro’s tangled not-brown, not-blonde hair across her face again as she studied his profile; it was a face she knew almost better than her own, the one that had excited her when she’d seen it for the first time among the university library stacks, the one that had soothed her when she hadn’t got the 2.1 she’d craved (and needed) to win a scholarship on the post-graduate photography course that was otherwise financially out of reach, the one that made her laugh with its impressive eyebrow flexibility . . . How could she not see this face – those blue eyes with the halo of fire round the pupils, the crooked smile that veered left, the cleft chin she could almost rest her thumb in, and that thatch of almost-black hair – for six months?

He looked back at her and for the first time what she saw in that familiar face frightened her: certainty. He was going to do this. He was going to go.

‘I could never tire of you. I’ve just tired of our routine. We’ve been doing this for too long already and we’re only just thirty. We’ve been together since uni and I don’t really know life without you. I don’t know who I am without you. You’re the love of my life, Ro, but we met too young.’ He stroked her cheek tenderly. ‘I need to do this. I want to be away from you specifically so that I get to come back to you. I want us to fall in love all over again – do you see?’ His eyes searched hers, trying to see if she did, but it was hard to see anything behind the tears. Panic was overriding everything.

‘No, I don’t see! I don’t understand why you want to go back to the “getting there” phase when I already love you.’

He shook his head. ‘You’re not hearing me, baby. I want us to fall again, get back that feeling of running off a cliff and realizing we can fly! I fell in love with you eleven years ago, and I am deeply in love with you now, but everything’s too . . . cosy. I want us to shake everything up, refresh the page, come back to each other with passion. I mean, who said you can only fall in love with someone once?’

‘Because that’s how it works. Nobody falls in love twice.’ He dropped his dimpled chin. ‘Is there a law against it?’ She knew he was taking the mickey out of her, puncturing her earnest words with a faintly mocking, bemused smile. ‘There’ll be some law of chemistry or something that says once a chemical reaction has occurred, it can’t be repeated. It either mutates into something else or just . . . dies.’

They stared at each other. Neither one of them had taken chemistry beyond GCSE.

‘And what if you meet someone else?’ Her voice sounded hollow and small, scarcely up to the task of articulating such an apocalyptic thought.

‘That’s not going to happen. The whole point of this, Ro, is that I’m wanting to rediscover you again.’

‘But what if you change while we’re apart? Or I do? Or we both do?’

‘We’ve been together our entire adult lives already. You really think that much can happen in six months?’

‘Famous last words,’ she muttered, watching a red deer graze nearby. She felt Matt take her hands in his again. She looked back at him.

‘Ro, I don’t want that to happen, and I don’t think it will – on my life I don’t – but if we’re meant to spend our lives together, we’ll pull through this.’

‘So you’re saying it will be difficult.’

He rewarded her with a crooked smile. He’d never won an argument against her yet. ‘I’m saying it’s not going to be easy. The reality is, I’m not going to be able to call regularly, maybe sometimes for a few weeks at a time.’

‘A few weeks?’ she spluttered.

‘I don’t think mobile reception is all that great in Cambodia. Anyway, that could be a good thing! We speak probably twenty times a day, but when did you last feel excited to see that it was me on the line? Or actually not hear what I was saying because you were listening to the sound of my voice? You always used to do that, but now we just talk about cleaning the fish tank or covering the bay trees before the frost. I want you to be desperate to get my call, like you used to be. I want you to blush when I see you naked, just like you did first time round.’ She saw a small light ignite in his eyes at the memory. ‘We can get all that back, Ro. This six months is just an adventure that’s going to bring it all back.’ He winked at her. ‘It’s sexy, I reckon.’

Ro blinked at him in disbelief. ‘Six months’ enforced chastity is sexy? Are you mad?’

‘Just think how mad for it you’re going to be when I get back.’ He smiled. ‘You’ll be ripping my clothes off.’

She pouted, but her eyes were dancing. ‘You could just play a little harder to get. You don’t actually need to fly all the way to Cambodia to force me into making the first move.’

‘You know I can never turn you down,’ he said, his finger tracing down her nose to the tip. His eyes locked on hers. ‘I want you disoriented and desperate without me.’ She saw the smile twitching on his lips, the look of conspiracy in his eyes. He was joking and yet she could see that the idea of her unsated lust appealed to him.

‘I already am.’

‘Now multiply it by six months.’

She swallowed. The thought of even a weekend without him was unbearable.

‘And then when I’m back . . . straight to Happy Ever After.’

Ro looked away. His words hurt to hear – he knew the weight they carried. He knew he was all she had – her family, her love, her best friend. But he was going anyway. He cupped her cheek with his palm again and made her look back at him.

‘That’s a promise, Ro. This isn’t just about six months off from the rat race. I’m going to take this time and think of a way of asking you that shows you exactly what you mean to me. You deserve more than just a bended knee.’

‘A bended knee would do me fine.’ After eleven years, frankly a plastic ring and a train ticket to Gretna Green would pass muster.

He shook his head. ‘Think bigger. Let’s not settle for this.’ He gestured to the park around them, distant cars stopping for the occupants to take photographs of the herds of deer grazing by the road, the tower blocks of Roehampton peeping through the tumbling grey clouds. ‘I’ve got grand plans for us, Ro. I don’t want there to be anything humdrum about our lives. Let’s take this six months to stretch and really wake up. You’ve got that wedding in New York in a few weeks, anyway. It’s your first overseas commission. You never know – it could be the start of you taking the company international! Or transatlantic at least. Why not? Think big.’

Ro rolled her eyes and huffed crossly. He wouldn’t be saying this if he’d met the bride. He’d never leave SW14 again if he met her.

He hooked his finger under her chin and made her look back at him. ‘I know that look. Stop being so stubborn. You need to set up the company properly. The website’s too slow, for a start. This is your chance to really focus on getting everything just the way you want it. By the time I come back, you could have the company in a completely different place. I’ll be refreshed, and we’ll both have our eyes wide open again. We’ll be unstoppable.’

Ro had lost. She knew she couldn’t talk him out of this. He had played his trump card – promising to propose – and what was she going to do, anyway? Not wait for him? As if.

Slowly she gave a small shrug. What else could she do? ‘Well, it doesn’t look like I’ve got much choice, does it?’

He swooped down and kissed her gratefully, his fingers winding through her hair as jubilation slowly began to give way to lust.

‘Let’s go home,’ he said in a low voice.

‘Already? But I thought we were having brunch at—’

‘I fly out on Tuesday, Ro.’

Ro felt her stomach lurch. This Tuesday?

‘Shh, shh. I didn’t want to upset you even a week longer than I had to. But six months off from this body is going to drive me almost out of my mind,’ he murmured, running his hands up her waist. It was true. What she lacked in height or athletic prowess, she made up for with a naturally curvy, soft pin-up figure. It was camouflaged in her signature boyfriend jeans, but gave a knockout punch in dresses at the almost constant stream of friends’ weddings. Even now, after over a decade together, when their sex life had cooled to several degrees below simmering and could justifiably be called ‘regular’, Matt couldn’t walk past her in just her underwear. Could he really do without her for all that time?

She saw the same doubt in his eyes as his hands traced the contours he knew so well. Muscle memory alone led him around her, knowing exactly where to skim and where to pause and explore.

He grabbed her hand and pulled her up to standing, kissing her more passionately now. When he pulled back, Ro felt her stomach flip to see his eyes so clouded with desire. ‘Home. Now. I’ve got forty-eight hours to stock up on six months’ worth of you.’

Ro giggled delightedly as he suddenly pulled her into a fast run back towards the shiny red Polo parked at the bottom of the hill. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was working already. If they were missing each other before they were even apart, this could be the making of them after all. Six months from now, she’d be Mrs Rowena Martin and they’d both have what they wanted: Matt his bright new beginning, her the happy ending.

Chapter Two

‘Look at me, please . . . And just one more,’ Ro said from behind the camera, her right hand making tiny micro-adjustments on the lens until she found the pin-sharp focus she was looking for on the bride’s face. Not that this bride lacked focus. This was a million-dollar wedding if it was a cent, and Ro had several times glimpsed the veins of steel that had bagged this bride her groom – most recently, dressing down her own father through gritted, whitened teeth for standing on the hem of her dress.

Outwardly, everything was as perfect as a Martha Stewart set: the twelve bridesmaids were all dressed in blue-sky silk columns and pearl chokers, with buffed shoulders and upswept hair; the huge potted blossom trees were in full bloom, the aisle densely carpeted with pink petals; and the guests had, thankfully, all honoured the cream dress code. Ro had been grateful to have the camera to hide behind as she’d snapped away in the bridal suite before the ceremony, shocked and embarrassed by the no-knickers (full Hollywood) look the bride was working under her modest tiered silk mousseline dress by Vera Wang. Personally, Ro gave them eight months. She didn’t see this couple getting to a year, not judging by the way the groom kept looking over at the maid of honour.

She walked slowly round the Waldorf Astoria ballroom, her camera dropped by her side as she watched the guests; some were still seated at their tables, but most were beginning to get up and mingle again, and the room was starting to throng. She guessed they were mostly around her age, possibly slightly younger – late twenties, rather than early thirties. There wasn’t a baby to be seen anywhere, though they may have been banned – probably had been: this bride didn’t do ‘messy’ or ‘unscheduled’ – but she had clocked a few bumps. They were likely all still in the throes of wedding fever, that time in their lives when they went to five or six weddings a year as friends and acquaintances jumped on the merry-go-round and life seemed like one long party lived out in a marquee and pretty dresses.

It was interesting seeing the differences to the British weddings she usually covered. She’d never photographed an American wedding before. The commission for this had come through the bride’s sister, who’d been a bridesmaid at a wedding Ro had covered in Dorset ten months earlier. She’d taken Ro’s card after seeing her signature colour-saturated filters, which lent each image a dreamy, nostalgic vibe. The most obvious difference between the Atlantic cousins was the men all wearing dinner suits rather than morning suits – the strong black and white stamping effect looked great through the lens – and the bridesmaids all looked a lot more sorted, professional even, than their British counterparts. None of them was drunk yet, for a start. The speeches had been a lot more corporate too, and obviously the couple had written their own vows – something that hadn’t really taken flight back home, where it was considered more proper to go along with the traditional King James version and have a reading of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.

Yes, it was interesting, all this – but not diverting. It didn’t matter that she was in the ballroom of the famous Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, 3,500 miles from home. That only told her that she was even further away from where Matt was, now nearly 9,000 miles away in fact. The distance between them had never been greater, and they’d spoken only three times in the three weeks since he’d gone (and one of those had been as he’d boarded the plane).

‘Not going to be easy’ – his phrase – wasn’t even close to covering it. ‘Devastating’ was closer to the truth. It had been one thing accepting the sentiment behind his grand plans in theory, but returning home from the airport to a house full of his absence – his clothes strewn across the floor, his electric toothbrush wet next to hers (‘There won’t be any electrical points where I’m going’), his pillow still indented with the shape of his head – had poleaxed her. She’d barely told anyone he’d left, and she wasn’t sure the milkman counted, anyway. Matt had kept his plans a secret from everyone, not just her – knowing they’d try to talk him out of it, question why he was really leaving her behind – so the phone had sat quietly on its cradle, no offers of rallying drinks at the pub or Indian takeaways or shopping trips to boost her spirits. She’d spent the first week dressed almost entirely in his clothes and spraying herself with his deodorant, and the house was so quiet that one evening in the kitchen, she’d actually convinced herself she could hear Shady, their long-crested goldfish, moving through the cloudy water of the fish tank.

But extending her trip here by a few days had been a mistake. Just because the days were dragging by in London didn’t mean they would actually be any shorter over here. Going to bed early only made the nights longer instead of the days, taking the boat out to Staten Island didn’t make the minutes tick past any quicker than cycling over to Barnes Common, and walking through Central Park may as well have been Richmond Park. The only concession she could make was that spring seemed more forthright here. It was early April and already the trees were fully in bud; the grass was speckled with daisies basking in the sun; joggers were wrapped in lighter layers . . .

Ro watched as the bride – bored, now, of her veil – wandered off to a cloakroom to touch up her make-up, her shoulder blades swishing like scythes above the top of her dress, while the groom made a dash for the bar. She rested against the back of a chair for a moment, exhausted and parched, and wondering whether to run to the kitchens to beg a plate of food. She’d been on her feet all day and no one had had the presence of mind even to offer her a glass of water, much less a sandwich. Everyone had eaten but her, and the reception was segeuing into the ‘party’ section of the night, with drinks being drunk at twice the speed and the band tuning up by the dance floor.

She turned quickly, too quickly, the rubber tip of one shoe catching the other, and she tripped, almost colliding with a waiter who was walking towards her with a tray carefully balanced with drinks.

‘Whoa!’ he laughed, his arm swaying above her like a tree branch. ‘Easy, tiger.’

‘Easy, tiger?’ Ro echoed, mortified and grasping for dignity. ‘You – you can’t speak like that to the guests, you know.’

His eyes swept over her black trouser suit and red Converses. ‘But you’re not a guest,’ he replied. ‘I’ve been watching you. You haven’t stopped all day.’ He grinned and held the tray out to her. ‘Want one of these?’

She eyed the champagne regretfully. ‘Well, like you say, I’m not a guest.’ Her voice sounded peevish even to her.

‘I won’t tell,’ the waiter replied.

‘No. Thanks, but I never drink when I’m working. There’s a direct correlation between a blurry head and blurry pictures,’ she said, automatically raising her camera to her eye as she saw a line-up of groomsmen behind him lifting one of the bridesmaids in a replay of the shots she’d taken of them all outside the church earlier. Clearly, beer was hitting bloodstreams.

‘I bet you haven’t eaten either, huh?’

‘What? Oh, uh . . . no,’ she replied politely, her finger rapidly depressing the shutter button.

‘Tch. They never cease to amaze me, these people. They’ll spend thirty grand on flowers, but not . . . Come on, follow me.’ He put his hand over the lens and she pulled away, annoyed.

‘Hey!’ She pointedly grabbed a microfibre cloth from her pocket and began cleaning the glass. ‘If I end up with your fingerprints overlaid on the photos . . .’

‘What, it might distract everyone from the bride’s mother’s Botox addiction?’ he laughed.

Ro laughed back. It was true – the bride’s mother had an expression every bit as frozen as a ventriloquist’s dummy and Ro had been struggling to get a ‘natural’ shot of her all day. In every frame she looked like she’d just hiccupped.

Ro looked at him properly, this irreverent waiter. He was tall and easy on the eye, his light brown hair closely cropped in not quite a buzz cut but only a grade above, and he was sporting week-old stubble. ‘Come on, I’m offering you a once-in-a-daytime opportunity here. Dinner on the house while the bride’s preoccupied with her own reflection. What time are you on till tonight? Midnight?’

Ro bit her lip. She was ravenous. She didn’t cope well without food. Matt always said her appetite was one of the things he loved most about her. ‘Well—’

‘Just follow me.’

He set off at a rapid pace, expertly balancing the tray above people’s heads – one advantage of his extra height – as they wove through the crowd. Several people tried to stop him for drinks, but he smiled and told them he was on his way back to the kitchen for refills, even though the glasses on his tray were blatantly full and untouched.

Ro followed, jogging lightly behind, her camera swinging round her neck.

‘Uh-uh, keep right here,’ the waiter said, as he kicked open a right double door just as the left one swung open in the opposite direction. ‘See what I mean?’ He grinned as another waiter sped past with an overloaded tray.

She only just jumped out of the way in time.

‘Lethal,’ Ro breathed.

‘Yo, José!’ he called out, sliding the tray onto an empty counter. ‘We got any food for the photographer here? We’re not the only ones being worked like dogs.’

A minute later, a medium-rare filet steak with a red wine jus and vegetables was passed through to the serving station. Ro was so hungry she wanted to fall into it face first. ‘Over here,’ the waiter said, carrying it over to a small chef’s table in the corner and grabbing some red-hot cutlery from the still-steaming dishwasher. Someone placed a glass of water in front of her too.

‘Thanks,’ Ro marvelled, sitting down quickly and tucking in without delay. She only had a few minutes before the bride would be back.

‘So, you’re English?’ the waiter enquired, watching her follow every hot mouthful with a gulp of water.

‘Yup.’

‘First time to New York?’

‘Second, technically,’ she mumbled, her mouth full.

‘Technically?’

She chewed quickly, not sure she had time to eat and chat. ‘I was born here. My parents moved to England when I was eight months,’ she said quickly, spearing a broccoli floret.

‘Oh, right. So then you’re American.’

She shrugged. ‘Well, technically, but I don’t have any sense of it. I feel as British as pie.’

‘What – key lime?’ He grinned.

‘Steak and kidney.’ She chuckled.

‘You’re lucky you belong to both. I’ve always wanted to go to London. Stay for a bit.’

‘Mm.’ She glanced at him suspiciously, hoping this wasn’t some warm-up for an invitation to stay.

‘You here alone?’

‘Yup.’ The video cameraman back in the ballroom was a local freelancer she’d hired on recommendation from a photographer friend but only met for the first time yesterday morning: he didn’t count as company. ‘My boyfriend’s travelling,’ she added, just in case this was also a warm-up for a chat-up line.

‘Well now, that’s a shame,’ he said, but with such a hapless grin she found herself grinning back again before she caught herself and abruptly stopped – she didn’t want it to be confused for flirting. ‘So do you like it here?’

‘Mm.’ She made a so-so movement with her head.

He nodded. ‘Yeah. New York can be a tough place to be on your own.’

‘Yo, dude! What you doing sittin’ there, man?’ They both looked up to see a man in a white jacket marching towards them. ‘You can’t be chatting up the chicks! I got people with a thirst on out there! Don’t you need the money or nothin’?’

The waiter stood up with a heavy sigh. ‘Guess I’d better shoot. Nice chatting to you.’

‘Yeah, you too,’ Ro nodded, having to place a hand in front of her mouth for politeness’s sake. ‘And thanks . . . For the meal, I mean.’

He winked and jogged off. ‘All right, I’m coming, I’m coming!’

Ro watched him go, bemused to notice a flash of lurid Hawaiian-print boxer shorts peeking out between his shirt and trousers.

She finished her meal quickly, wiping her mouth with the napkin that had also been – thoughtfully – provided and marching quickly back through the kitchen, remembering to stay to the right on her way back out through the double doors.

The bride was on the dance floor – veil shed like a snake’s skin – and had changed into a strapless mini-skirted version of her wedding dress, the groom nowhere to be seen. She was standing with her hands on her hips, a gaggle of nervous ushers variously trying to persuade her to dance/drink/take a seat. But the more solicitous they became, the more her eyes narrowed.

Ro’s gaze quickly skirted the room for the groom too. She couldn’t see the maid of honour anywhere either, and from what she’d glimpsed earlier . . . Oh dear, this wasn’t good, not good at all.

She walked quickly round the perimeter of the ballroom. Everyone was waiting for the first dance so that they could get on with hitting the dance floor themselves, and the absence of the groom and maid of honour was becoming more conspicuous by the minute.

Ro reached the doors and looked out into the hallway. Some smaller rooms had also been reserved for the wedding – cloakrooms, bathrooms – including a modest, quiet conference room that had been set up specifically for interviewing the bride and groom’s friends and families for the video that Ro would splice and edit back in the UK.

She padded silently across the hallway in her rubber-soled shoes. A few of the older guests were already collecting their coats, some men checking their texts on the way back from the toilets.

She was passing a mobile photo booth when a sprinkle of flirtatious laughter stopped her in her tracks. The curtain was drawn, the light popping as shots were taken. Just in sight – though she’d almost walked straight past them – she saw a white shirt and a pair of black trousers had been stuffed round the back of the booth.

Ro hesitated. Kicking out below the curtain was the distinctive blue silk hem of a bridesmaid dress. Oh no. No, no, no. This wasn’t happening. No way was this marriage imploding on its very first day. There could be no break-up until after she’d been paid.

Looking around her quickly to check that no one was watching, she bent double, searching for the pair of legs that must be, now, trouserless, and in the booth too.

They were.

She heard more laughter from behind the curtain, a low buzz of muted voices. ‘No!’ a female voice screeched delightedly, clearly meaning ‘yes’, as the light popped again.

Ro rolled her eyes and reached down for the discarded clothes – how reckless? – just as she heard the furious rata-tat-tat of stilettos on the marble floor behind her.

She looked down at the clothes balled in her hand and turned in the same instant she switched them behind her back, a frozen smile on her face.

‘Have you seen my husband?’ the bride demanded, her eyes scanning the empty spaces of the corridors like a sparrowhawk hunting mice.

Without visibly moving, Ro threw the clothes behind her, hearing just a soft, muffled thwump as they fell to the floor of the booth. ‘Uh, no . . . now you mention it, I haven’t seen him recently. I was just in the loos and he wasn’t there.’ The bride scowled. ‘In the bathroom, I mean . . . obviously.’

The booth began to hum, vibrating softly, and the bride looked behind Ro, her attention diverted. She looked at the drawn curtain. ‘Who’s in there?’

‘In there?’ Ro echoed, her voice an octave higher than usual. ‘Um, no one.’

‘The drape is drawn.’ She bent to the side. ‘And I can see legs. Someone’s in there.’

Ro looked down. At least the legs she could see were encased in black trousers again. ‘Oh yes, of course. And, uh . . . you’re right. Obviously someone’s in there. It’s just not . . . your husband.’

The bride’s eyes narrowed suspiciously again.

A sudden whirring started up and they both looked down as a strip of photos slid out. The bride reached for them, but Ro got there first, whipping them away before either of them could set eyes on the images. ‘Uh . . . I can’t let you see those.’

‘Why not?’ the bride demanded furiously. ‘Because—’

But the bride wasn’t hanging around to hear Ro’s story and in the next instant she had flashed open the curtain. Her jaw dropped at the sight of her maid of honour and the waiter who had fed Ro only twenty minutes earlier smiling back at her, a sign hanging from the bridesmaid’s neck.

‘What the . . . ?’ the bride stormed.

The waiter locked eyes with Ro, who was looking on, open-mouthed with shock. They both knew he was going to get fired for this.

‘It’s not what you think,’ Ro said, hurriedly closing the curtain again, much to everyone’s astonishment.

‘Why is . . . why is my maid of honour standing in that booth with a waiter and wearing a sign that reads—’

‘It’s a surprise!’ Ro blurted out. ‘For the video.’ The bride blinked at her.

‘Yes, uh . . . I mean, it may not work, but . . . we thought we’d give it a go and . . . if it doesn’t work, I’ll leave it out. It’s just good to have options, that’s all.’

She nodded frantically, smiled manically, her fingers threading through the strap of the camera round her neck. ‘But what—’ At that moment, the groom appeared from the men’s bathroom, fiddling with his cuffs.

‘Where have you been?’ the bride shrieked as he walked over, taking in the testy scene. ‘Everyone’s waiting for our first dance.’

‘Well, I’m ready when you are, baby,’ the groom shrugged, as his bride grabbed him by the elbow and steered him back to the ballroom.

‘Hayley!’ the bride snapped over her shoulder. ‘Are you coming?’

The maid of honour peeped out through the curtain, giggling nervously and mouthing ‘thanks’ to Ro as she skittered past.

A moment later, the waiter peered round the curtain. ‘Is it safe to come out?’

‘Just about.’ Ro turned back to him.

‘I don’t know how to thank you. You saved my ass for sure,’ he said, buttoning up his shirt and hurriedly tucking it back into his trousers. He reached over and picked up the tray she hadn’t noticed sitting on a side table just a short distance away. ‘You don’t know how badly I need this money.’

She shrugged. ‘Well, I figure one good turn deserves another.’

‘Here. By way of thanks,’ he said, pulling something from his back pocket.

‘What’s this?’ she asked as he handed her a small card.

She noticed a smudge of dark pink lipstick near his ear.

‘A friend’s having a party tomorrow night. Just tell ’em, “Shaddywack”.’

‘Huh?’

But he was already back on duty, walking towards a group of guests with his tray.

She looked down at the card he’d handed her:

Hamptons summer weekends house share

4-bed, 2.5-bath cottage on Egypt Green, East Hampton. 2-acre lot.

MD–LD $25,000 ¼ share. Responsible professionals only.

To make the cut, bring a gift that defines you and come to the Pink Room, Penthouse Level, 53rd Street and Broadway, April 10, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Contact h.slater@googlemail.com to register for entry password on the night.

She shook her head, slightly baffled, before remembering the photos still in her other hand. She looked at them and squinted in disbelief: the maid of honour was variously pouting and laughing at the camera, her hands in her hair, the waiter bare-chested with a buttonhole rose behind his ear, nuzzling her neck. Ro looked at the hand-painted sign round the bridesmaid’s neck and sighed: ‘Get Humped this summer.’ What did it even mean? And, more to the point, how the hell was she going to work it into a wedding film?


Excerpted from The Summer Without You by Karen Swan. Copyright © 2014 by Karen Swan.
First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 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.

The Italian Girl by Lucinda Riley – Extract

The Italian Girl

The Metropolitan Opera House, New York

My Dearest Nico,

It is strange to sit down to relate a story of great complexity knowing you may never read it. Whether writing about the events of the past few years will be a catharsis for me, or for your benefit, darling, I’m not sure, but I feel driven to do it.

So I sit here in my dressing room wondering where I should begin. Much of what I will write happened before you were born – a chain of events that began when I was younger than you are now. So maybe that is the place I should start. In Naples, the city where I was born . . .

I remember Mamma hanging out the washing on a line that reached across to the apartment on the other side of the street. Walking down the narrow alleyways of the Piedigrotta, it looked as though the residents were in a state of perpetual celebration, with the different-coloured clothes on washing lines strung high above our heads. And the noise – always the noise – that evokes those early years; even at night it was never quiet. People singing, laughing, babies crying . . . Italians, as you know, are vocal, emotional people, and families in the Piedigrotta shared their joy and sadness every day as they sat on their doorsteps, turning as brown as berries in the blazing sun. The heat was unbearable, especially in high summer, when the pavements burnt the soles of your feet and mosquitoes took full advantage of your exposed flesh to stealthily attack. I can still smell the myriad scents that wafted through my open bedroom window: the drains, which on occasion were enough to turn your stomach, but more often the enticing aroma of freshly baked pizza from Papa’s kitchen.

When I was young we were poor, but by the time I took my First Communion Papa and Mamma had made quite a success of ‘Marco’s’, their small café.

They worked night and day, serving spicy pizza slices made to Papa’s secret recipe, which over the years had become famous in the Piedigrotta. In the summer months, the café became even busier with the influx of tourists, and the cramped interior was jammed with wooden tables until it was almost impossible to walk between them.

Our family lived in a small apartment above the café. We had our own bathroom; there was food on the table and shoes on our feet. Papa was proud that he’d risen from nothing to provide for his family in such a way. I was happy too, my dreams stretching little further than the following sunset.

Then, one hot August night, when I was eleven years old, something happened that changed my life. It seems impossible to believe that a girl not yet in her teens could fall in love, but I remember so vividly the moment I first laid eyes on him . . .

1

Naples, Italy, August 1966

Rosanna Antonia Menici held on to the washbasin and stood on her tiptoes to look in the mirror. She had to lean a little to the left because there was a crack in it that distorted her facial features. This meant she could see only half of her right eye and cheekbone and none of her chin; she was still too short to see that, even standing on her toes.

‘Rosanna! Will you come out of the bathroom!’

Sighing, Rosanna let go of the basin, walked across the black linoleum floor and unlocked the door. The handle turned immediately, the door opened and Carlotta brushed roughly past her.

‘Why do you lock the door, you silly child! What have you to hide?’ Carlotta turned on the bath taps, then pinned her long, dark, curly hair expertly on top of her head.

Rosanna shrugged sheepishly, wishing that God had made her as lovely as her older sister. Mamma had told her that God gave everyone a different gift and Carlotta’s was her beauty. She watched humbly as Carlotta removed her bathrobe, revealing her perfect body with its lush creamy skin, full breasts and long, tapered legs. Everyone who came into the café praised Mamma and Papa’s beautiful daughter, and said how she would one day make a good match for a rich man.

Steam began to rise in the small bathroom as Carlotta turned off the taps and climbed into the water.

Rosanna perched herself on the edge of the bath. ‘Is Giulio coming tonight?’ she asked her sister.

‘Yes. He will be there.’

‘Will you marry him, do you think?’

Carlotta began to soap herself. ‘No, Rosanna, I will not marry him.’

‘But I thought you liked him?’

‘I do like him, but I don’t . . . oh, you are too young to understand.’

‘Papa likes him.’

‘Yes, I know Papa likes him. He’s from a rich family.’ Carlotta raised an eyebrow and sighed dramatically. ‘But he bores me. Papa would have me walking down the aisle with him tomorrow if he could, but I want to have some fun first, enjoy myself.’

‘But I thought being married was fun?’ persisted Rosanna. ‘You can wear a pretty wedding dress and get lots of presents and your own apartment and—’

‘A brood of screaming children and a thickening waistline,’ finished Carlotta, idly tracing the slender contours of her own body with the soap as she spoke. Her dark eyes flickered in Rosanna’s direction. ‘What are you staring at? Go away, Rosanna, and let me have ten minutes’ peace. Mamma needs your help downstairs. And close the door behind you!’ Without replying, Rosanna left the bathroom and walked down the steep wooden stairs. She opened the door at the bottom of the stairs and entered the café. The walls had recently been whitewashed and a painting of the Madonna hung next to a poster of Frank Sinatra over the bar at the back of the room. The dark wooden tables were polished to a sheen and candles had been placed in empty wine bottles on top of each one.

‘There you are! Where have you been? I’ve called and called you. Come and help me hang this banner.’ Antonia Menici was standing on a chair, holding one end of the brightly coloured material. The chair was wobbling precariously under her considerable weight.

‘Yes, Mamma.’ Rosanna pulled another wooden chair out from under one of the tables and dragged it across to the arch in the centre of the café.

‘Hurry up, child! God gave you legs to run, not to crawl like a snail!’

Rosanna took hold of the other end of the banner, then stood on the chair.

‘Put that loop on the nail,’ instructed Antonia.

Rosanna did so.

‘Now, come help your mamma down so we can see if we have it straight.’

Rosanna descended from her own chair, then hurried to help Antonia safely to the ground. Her mamma’s palms were wet, and Rosanna could see beads of sweat on her forehead. ‘Bene, bene.’ Antonia stared up at the banner with satisfaction.

Rosanna read the words out loud: ‘“Happy Thirtieth Anniversary – Maria and Massimo!”’

Antonia put her arms round her daughter and gave her a rare hug. ‘Oh, it will be such a surprise! They think they are coming here for supper with just your papa and me. I want to watch their faces when they see all their friends and relatives.’ Her round face beamed with pleasure. She let go of Rosanna, sat down on the chair and wiped her forehead with a handkerchief. Then she leant forward and beckoned Rosanna towards her. ‘Rosanna, I shall tell you a secret. I have written to Roberto. He’s coming to the party, all the way from Milan. He will sing for his mamma and papa, right here in Marco’s! Tomorrow, we will be the talk of the Piedigrotta!’

‘Yes, Mamma. He is a crooner, isn’t he?’

‘Crooner? What blasphemous words you speak! Roberto Rossini is not a crooner, he is a student at the scuola di musica of La Scala in Milan. One day he will be a great opera singer and perform on the stage of La Scala itself.’

Antonia clasped her hands to her bosom and looked, to Rosanna, exactly as she did when she was praying at Mass in church.

‘Now, go and help Papa and Luca in the kitchen. There’s still much to do before the party and I’m going to Signora Barezi’s to have my hair set.’

‘Will Carlotta come and help me too?’ asked Rosanna. ‘No. She’s coming to Signora Barezi’s with me. We must both look our best for this evening.’ ‘What shall I wear, Mamma?’

‘You have your pink church dress, Rosanna.’

‘But it’s too small. I’ll look silly,’ she said, pouting.

‘You will not! Vanity is a sin, Rosanna. God will come in the night and pull out all your hair if he hears your vain thoughts. You’ll wake up in the morning bald, just as Signora Verni did when she left her husband for a younger man! Now, get along with you to the kitchen.’

Rosanna nodded and walked off towards the kitchen wondering why Carlotta hadn’t yet lost all her hair. The intense heat assailed her as she opened the door. Marco, her papa, was preparing dough for the pizzas at the long wooden table. Marco was thin and wiry, the polar opposite to his wife, his bald head glistening with sweat as he worked. Luca, her tall, dark-eyed older brother, was stirring an enormous, steaming pan on top of the stove. Rosanna watched for a moment, mesmerised, as Papa expertly twirled the dough on his fingertips above his head, then slapped it down on the table in a perfectly formed circle.

‘Mamma sent me in to help.’

‘Dry those plates on the drainer and stack them on the table.’ Marco did not pause in his task as he rapped out the order.

Rosanna looked at the mountain of plates and, nodding resignedly, pulled a clean cloth out of a drawer.

 

‘How do I look?’

Carlotta paused dramatically by the door as the rest of her family stared at her in admiration. She was wearing a new dress made from a soft lemon satin, with a plunging bodice and a skirt which tapered tightly over her thighs, stopping just above her knees. Her thick black hair had been set, and hung in ebullient, glossy curls to her shoulders.

‘Bella, bella!’ Marco held out his hand to Carlotta as he walked across the café. She took it as she stepped down onto the floor.

‘Giulio, does my daughter not look beautiful?’ asked Marco.

The young man rose from the table and smiled shyly, his boyish features seemingly at odds with his well-muscled frame.

‘Yes,’ Giulio agreed. ‘She is as lovely as Sophia Loren in Arabesque.’

Carlotta walked towards her boyfriend and planted a light kiss on his tanned cheek. ‘Thank you, Giulio.’

‘And doesn’t Rosanna look pretty too?’ said Luca, smiling at his sister.

‘Of course she does,’ said Antonia briskly.

Rosanna knew Mamma was lying. The pink dress, which had once looked so well on Carlotta, made her own skin seem sallow, and her tightly plaited hair made her ears look larger than ever.

‘We shall have a drink before the guests arrive,’ Marco said, brandishing a bottle of jewel-bright Aperol liqueur. He opened it with a flourish and poured out six small glasses.

‘Even me, Papa?’ Rosanna asked.

‘Even you.’ Marco nodded to her as he handed everyone a glass. ‘May God keep us all together, protect us from the evil eye and make this day special for our best friends, Maria and Massimo.’ Marco lifted his glass and drained it in one go.

Rosanna took a small sip and almost choked as the fiery, bitter-orange liquid hit the back of her throat.

‘Are you all right, piccolina?’ asked Luca, patting her on the back.

She smiled up at him. ‘Yes, Luca.’

Her brother took her hand in his and bent down to whisper in her ear. ‘One day, you will be far more beautiful than our sister.’

Rosanna shook her head vehemently. ‘No, Luca, I won’t.

But I don’t mind. Mamma says I have other gifts.’

‘Of course you do.’ Luca wrapped his arms round his sister’s thin body and hugged her to him.

‘Mamma mia! Here are the first guests. Marco, bring in the Prosecco. Luca, go check the food, quickly!’ Antonia straightened her dress and advanced towards the door.

 

Rosanna sat at a corner table and watched as the café began to fill up with friends and relatives of the guests of honour. Carlotta was smiling and tossing her hair as she stood at the centre of a group of young men. Giulio looked on jealously from a seat in the corner.

Then a hush fell over the café and every head turned towards the figure in the doorway.

He stood, towering over Antonia, then bent to kiss her on both cheeks. Rosanna stared at him. She had never thought to describe a man as beautiful before, but could summon no other word for him. He was very tall and broad-shouldered, his physical strength evident in the muscles of his forearms, which were clearly visible beneath the short sleeves of his shirt. His hair was as sleek and black as a raven’s wing, combed back from his forehead to emphasise the finely chiselled planes of his face. Rosanna could not see what colour his eyes were, but they were large and liquid and his lips were full, yet firm and masculine in contrast to his skin, which was unusually pale for a Neapolitan.

Rosanna experienced a strange sensation in the pit of her stomach, the same fluttering feeling she had before a spelling test at school. She glanced across at Carlotta. She too was staring at the figure at the door.

‘Roberto, welcome.’ Marco signalled for Carlotta to follow him as he pushed through the crowd towards the door. He kissed Roberto on both cheeks. ‘I am so happy you have honoured us by coming here tonight. This is Carlotta, my daughter. I think she has grown up since last you saw her.’

Roberto looked Carlotta up and down. ‘Yes, Carlotta, you have grown up,’ he agreed.

He spoke in a deep, musical voice that caused Rosanna’s butterflies to flutter round her stomach once again.

‘And what of Luca, and . . . er . . . ?’

‘Rosanna?’ answered Papa.

‘Of course, Rosanna. She was only a few months old when I last saw her.’

‘They’re both well and . . .’ Marco stopped as he glanced beyond Roberto to two figures making their way up the cobbled street. ‘Hush, everybody, it’s Maria and Massimo!’

The assembled company immediately became silent, and a few seconds later, the door opened. Maria and Massimo stood at the entrance to the café, staring in surprise at the sea of familiar faces in front of them.

‘Mamma! Papa!’ Roberto stepped forward and embraced his parents. ‘Happy anniversary!’

‘Roberto!’ Maria’s eyes brimmed with tears as she hugged her son to her. ‘I cannot believe it, I cannot believe it,’ she repeated over and over.

‘More Prosecco for everyone!’ said Marco, grinning from ear to ear at the coup they had managed to pull off.

Rosanna helped Luca and Carlotta pass round the sparkling wine until everyone had a glass.

‘A little quiet, please.’ Marco clapped his hands. ‘Roberto wishes to speak.’

Roberto climbed onto a chair and smiled down at the guests. ‘Today is a very special occasion. My beloved mamma and papa are celebrating their thirtieth wedding anniversary. As everyone knows, they have lived here in the Piedigrotta all their lives, making a success of their bakery and amassing a multitude of good friends. They’re known as much for their kindness as they are for their wonderful bread. Anyone with a problem knows they will always find a sympathetic ear and sound advice behind the counter of Massimo’s. They’ve been the most loving parents I could have wished for . . .’ Roberto’s own eyes were moist as he watched his mamma wipe away a further tear. ‘They sacrificed much to send me away to the best music school in Milan so I could train to become an opera singer. Well, my dream is beginning to come true. I hope it won’t be long before I am singing at La Scala itself. And it’s all thanks to them. Let us toast to their continued happiness and good health.’ Roberto raised his glass. ‘To Mamma and Papa – Maria and Massimo.’

‘To Maria and Massimo!’ chorused the guests.

Roberto stepped down from the chair and fell into his mother’s arms amid much cheering.

‘Rosanna, come. We must help Papa serve the food,’ Antonia said, and ushered Rosanna out of the room and towards the kitchen.

 

Later, Rosanna watched Roberto as he talked to Carlotta, and then, when Marco had put records on the gramophone brought downstairs from their apartment, she saw how Roberto’s arms slipped naturally around Carlotta’s narrow waist as they danced together.

‘They make a handsome pair,’ whispered Luca, echoing Rosanna’s thoughts. ‘Giulio doesn’t look pleased, does he?’

Rosanna followed her brother’s gaze and saw Giulio still sitting in the corner, watching morosely as his girlfriend laughed happily in Roberto’s arms. ‘No, he doesn’t,’ she agreed.

‘You would like to dance, piccolina?’ Luca asked.

Rosanna shook her head, ‘No, thank you. I can’t dance.’ ‘Of course you can.’ Luca pulled her from her chair and into the crowd of guests who were dancing too.

‘Sing for me, Roberto, please,’ Rosanna heard Maria ask her son when the record stopped.

‘Yes, sing for us, sing for us,’ chanted the guests.

Roberto wiped his brow and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I will do my best, but it’s hard without accompaniment. I shall sing “Nessun dorma”.’

Silence descended as he began to sing.

Rosanna stood spellbound and listened to the magical sound of Roberto’s voice. As it ascended towards the climax and he stretched out his hands, he looked as if he were reaching towards her.

And that was the moment she knew she loved him.

There was thunderous applause, but Rosanna could not clap. She was too busy searching for her handkerchief to wipe away the involuntary tears that had trickled down her face.

‘Encore! Encore!’ everyone cried.

Roberto shrugged his shoulders and smiled. ‘Forgive me, ladies and gentlemen, but I must save my voice.’ There was a murmur of disappointment in the room as he resumed his place by Carlotta’s side.

‘Then Rosanna shall sing “Ave Maria”,’ said Luca. ‘Come, piccolina.’

Rosanna shook her head violently and remained rooted to the spot, a look of horror on her face.

‘Yes!’ Maria clapped her hands. ‘Rosanna has such a sweet voice, and it would mean much to me to hear her sing my favourite prayer.’

‘No, please, I . . .’ But Rosanna was swept up in Luca’s arms and placed on a chair.

‘Sing as you always do for me,’ whispered Luca gently to her.

Rosanna looked at the sea of faces smiling indulgently up at her. She took a deep breath and automatically opened her mouth. At first, her voice was small, barely more than a whisper; but as she began to forget her nervousness and lose herself in the music, her voice grew stronger.

Roberto, whose eyes had been preoccupied with Carlotta’s ample cleavage, heard the voice and looked up in disbelief. Surely such a pure, perfect sound could not be coming from the skinny little girl in the dreadful pink dress? But as he watched Rosanna, he no longer saw her sallow skin, or the way she seemed to be all arms and legs. Instead, he saw her huge, expressive brown eyes and noticed a hint of colour appear in her cheeks as her exquisite voice soared to a crescendo.

Roberto knew he was not listening to a schoolgirl perform her party piece. The ease with which she assailed the notes, her natural control and her obvious musicality were gifts that couldn’t be taught.

‘Excuse me,’ he whispered to Carlotta, as applause rang round the room. He crossed the café to Rosanna, who had just emerged from Maria’s enthusiastic embrace.

‘Rosanna, come and sit over here with me. I wish to talk to you.’ He led her to a chair, then sat down opposite her and took her small hands in his.

‘Bravissima, little one. You sang that beautiful prayer perfectly. Are you taking lessons?’

Too overwhelmed to look at him, Rosanna stared at the floor and shook her head.

‘Then you should be. It’s never too early to start. Why, if I had begun earlier, then . . .’ Roberto shrugged. ‘I shall talk to your papa. There’s a teacher here in Naples who used to give me singing lessons. He is one of the best. You must go to him immediately.’

Rosanna raised her eyes sharply and met his gaze for the first time. She saw now that his eyes were a deep, dark blue and full of warmth. ‘You think I have a good voice?’ she whispered incredulously.

‘Yes, little one, better than good. And with lessons, your gift can be encouraged and nurtured. Then one day I can say proudly it was Roberto Rossini who discovered you.’ He smiled at her, then kissed her hand.

Rosanna felt as if she might faint with pleasure.

‘Her voice is so sweet, is it not, Roberto?’ said Maria, appearing behind Rosanna and placing her hand on her shoulder.

‘It’s more than sweet, Mamma, it . . .’ Roberto waved his hands expressively. ‘It is a gift from God, like my own.’

‘Thank you, Signor Rossini,’ was all Rosanna could manage.

‘Now,’ said Roberto, ‘I shall go and find your papa.’

Rosanna glanced up and saw that several guests were looking at her with the same warmth and admiration usually reserved for Carlotta.

A glow spread through her body. It was the first time in her life that anyone had told her she was special.

 

At half past ten, the party was still in full swing.

‘Rosanna, it’s time you went to your bed.’ Her mother appeared by her side. ‘Go say goodnight to Maria and Massimo.’

‘Yes, Mamma.’ Rosanna weaved her way carefully through the dancers. ‘Goodnight, Maria.’ Rosanna kissed her on both cheeks.

‘Thank you for singing for me, Rosanna. Roberto is still talking about your voice.’

‘Indeed I am.’ Roberto appeared behind Rosanna. ‘I’ve given the name and address of the singing teacher to both your papa and Luca. Luigi Vincenzi used to coach at La Scala and a few years ago he retired here to Naples. He’s one of the best teachers in Italy and still takes talented pupils. When you see him, say that I sent you.’

‘Thank you, Roberto.’ Rosanna blushed under his gaze.

‘You have a very special gift, Rosanna. You must take care to cherish it. Ciao, little one.’ Roberto took her hand to his mouth and kissed it. ‘We will meet again one day, I am sure of it.’

 

Upstairs in the bedroom she shared with Carlotta, Rosanna pulled her nightgown over her head, then reached under her mattress and pulled out her diary. Finding the pencil she kept in her underwear drawer, she climbed onto the bed and, brow furrowed in concentration, began to write.

‘16th August. Massimo and Maria’s party . . .’

Rosanna chewed the end of her pencil as she tried to remember the exact words Roberto had spoken to her. After carefully writing them down, she smiled in pleasure and closed the diary. Then she lay back on her pillow, listening to the sounds of music and laughter from downstairs.

A few minutes later, unable to sleep, she sat up. And, reopening her diary, picked up her pencil and added another sentence.

‘One day, I will marry Roberto Rossini.’


Excerpted from The Italian Girl by Lucinda Riley. Copyright © Lucinda Edmonds 1996. Revised edition copyright Lucinda Riley 2014.
First published as Aria 1996 by Simon & Schuster. This revised and updated edition published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 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.

The Reckoning by Rennie Airth – Extract

The Reckoning

PROLOGUE

Lewes, Sussex, 1947

As he was fitting a new fly to his hook, Oswald Gibson looked up and saw two figures on the ridge above, both of them carrying what looked like fishing gear over their shoulders, long, cylindrical cases of the kind that you could fit two sections of a rod in.

‘Damn!’

They were coming over a saddle in the low green hills and, having spotted the grassy bank where Oswald was standing with his rod, were probably heading for that very spot. Upstream from a small pool where the trout paused, as though waiting for any tempting flies that might come their way, it was the best fishing site on the stream and one that Oswald had come to think of as his own.

And he knew what was going to happen next, almost as though it were fated. The men would turn up, they’d exchange polite greetings and then, after looking around and seeing that this was the place to be, they’d say, ‘Mind if we join you?’ and take out their rods, probably not even waiting for a reply.

And Oswald would say nothing. He’d make no complaint, not say that he did mind and would they kindly shove off and find somewhere else to do their angling. No, he’d stand there dumb and resentful, accepting – as he always had – his failure to stand up to others, unable to escape the vision he had of himself as one of life’s doormats.

‘For heaven’s sake, Oswald! For once in your life assert yourself.’ The words were inscribed in his memory as though on marble, which wasn’t surprising, given the number of times he had heard them. ‘Why do you let people walk all over you?’

He could hardly have replied that it was because he was a doormat (though he’d been tempted to, and more than once). Still, the whirligig of time brought in its revenges. (The saying was one of Oswald’s favourites.) Fresh in his mind still was the memory of the morning a year ago when he had come upstairs with Mildred’s breakfast tray and found her lying in bed, with her eyes staring and her mouth agape: stone-dead. ‘Stiff as a rod,’ he had murmured to himself in wonder as he’d touched his wife’s hand for the last time.

Meanwhile the men had crossed the saddle in the ridge and were coming down the hillside, close to where a flock of sheep were grazing, watched over by a dog. They were on a path that would join the one that ran along the valley floor, which in turn would bring them to his doorstep. Oswald braced himself for the encounter he was sure was about to take place. He could at least be cool with them, he thought: he would let them see they were not welcome. Perhaps they would take the hint and depart. As he stood there, already uncertain in his resolve, knowing in his heart that he was simply unable to deal with confrontation, he heard a piercing whistle and saw the sheepdog, a border collie, rise from the grass and begin to circle the flock it was guarding, coaxing them into movement. He scanned the hillside for their shepherd, a man he knew by sight, but it was some moments before he spotted him standing at the edge of a small copse near the crest of the ridge, his familiar figure blending with the shadow cast by the trees. For some minutes the sheep continued to move across the hillside, urged on by the dog, until a final whistle, different in pitch, brought it to a halt and the flock settled down again.

Distracted by the spectacle, Oswald had half-forgotten the approaching threat, but when he turned his gaze on the fishermen again it was to discover that he’d had a reprieve. During the minute or so that he had spent watching the shepherd, the pair had reached the intersection of the two paths, but instead of coming upstream to join him, as he had feared they would, they had gone in the other direction; in fact he could hear the sound of their voices growing fainter as they moved away. His solitude was preserved.

‘Well, thank heaven for that.’

With a sigh of satisfaction he turned back to face the stream and a moment later his line, with the fly attached, went soaring off in an arc to fall softly on the still surface of the pool. He felt better already.

Earlier that morning he had awoken from a fitful sleep still troubled by the memory of an uninvited visitor who had called on him the week before, a nosy intruder he’d never met or heard of, who had knocked on his front door and, without so much as a by-your-leave, had proceeded to question him, sharply at times, about some long-forgotten episode in his past. Names, dates, places – the questions had been fired at him like so many missiles, as if he could be expected to remember details of that kind after all this time; and when he had dared to object to the interrogation, he’d been assured that the enquiry had official backing – something he’d been unable to challenge, but suspected was true, as this new Labour government seemed to think it had the right to stick its nose into everything. Oswald had endured the ordeal sullenly. He had sensed the hostility of his questioner without being able to identify its source and for this reason had been as uncooperative as he dared.

In particular he’d neglected to mention the journals he had kept as a young man, when he had still thought his experiences might have some value – that his life might amount to something – and which were gathering dust in a desk drawer. When his inquisitor had left at last, and without a word of thanks, he had dug them out and quickly found the volume that dealt with the events in question. Yes, there it was, the whole business faithfully reported in his own unique style, a mode of expression clear to him, but not to prying eyes (Mildred’s, for example). And although Oswald had been surprised by the amount of information his tormentor possessed, at least he’d been given an avenue to pursue: one possible means of getting to the bottom of what had been an unusually disagreeable experience.

Among the names flung at him, most of which he had forgotten, was one that struck a special chord in Oswald’s memory: not because it had seemed important at the time (on the contrary, he hadn’t even bothered to record it in his journal), but because he remembered some remarks this individual had made that prompted him to wonder now if the fellow was still alive and whether he could track him down. He’d be just the chap to ask about this so-called investigation, Oswald told himself: he would know, if anyone did, what lay behind it all. Finding him had been the problem, however. The only way Oswald could think to do so was to write to the man’s former employers on the off-chance they were still in contact with him. But although he had begun to pen the necessary letter, he had quickly lost heart and put it aside. What was he getting himself into? he had wondered. The truth was that he hadn’t enjoyed having his past raked up – not that bit, anyway – and when he’d thought more about it, and about his strange and unsettling interview with his recent visitor, he’d been inclined to let the whole matter drop: to let sleeping dogs lie.

But for some reason the business had continued to bother him. When, a few days later, he had travelled to Hastings to spend a long weekend with an old friend of his who had retired to the seaside town, he had found himself still dogged by the memory of his impromptu interview and, even before he set out to return home, he had resolved to talk the matter over with his elder brother, Ned. Ned was the person he turned to most often for advice and, as luck would have it, Ned was coming down from London to spend the following weekend with him.

Oswald looked at his watch. It was after five. Mrs Gannet, his daily, was usually gone by half-past four and he would have to wait until tomorrow to have a word with her about his weekend guest and how to feed him. With rationing still in force – and that in spite of the war being over for two years now – food was perpetually in short supply; fortunately Edna Gannet was a resourceful woman (and a great relief to have about the house after thirty years of marriage to the relentless Mildred) and Oswald was sure that somehow she would make ends meet. For one thing, there were the trout, which continued to attach themselves obligingly to his hook and line, and which were at least beyond the ration man’s reach. Only that afternoon he’d caught a fine specimen – it was still flopping in its death-throes on the grass bank behind him – and by Saturday, which was four days off, he might have caught more. The thought brought a grin to his lips as he sent his line winging over the water for the last time. Though something of a novice as an angler – he’d never had the time for it when he’d been married, Mildred had seen to that – he’d found he had an unexpected talent for the sport and, now that he was retired (and a widower to boot) and able to devote more hours to his hobby, he was reaping the rewards of his determination to master its finer points.

Reeling in his line, he heard the shepherd’s whistle again, coming from the hillside behind him; this time he ignored it, continuing instead to gaze at the scene before him: at the willow trees on the far bank bending to touch the stream, and at the water itself, which still sparkled in the last of the sunlight. It had been a gem of an autumn day, with the October sun only now beginning to pale in the blue sky and the shadows starting to lengthen, and throughout the quiet afternoon Oswald had hummed contentedly to himself, as if in harmony with the chorus that came from a pair of ringdoves in the giant oak tree that overlooked the stream at that point, and whose spreading branches offered welcome shade. For many years he had been a member of the local choral society and for some weeks had been attending rehearsals for the concert of Gilbert and Sullivan favourites that the group planned to give at their annual autumn concert in a few weeks’ time.

Oswald had been picked to sing one of the solo numbers and had been practising hard.

‘A wandering minstrel I . . .’

As he bent down to collect his things from the grassy bank, stowing the trout in the old kitchen basket he used as a creel and gathering up the crumbs of his lunchtime sandwich to put in a piece of greaseproof paper, he broke into song.

‘A thing of shreds and patches . . .’

He searched about him for his tin of flies; he knew he’d put it down on the grass somewhere.

‘Of ballads, songs and snatches, And dreamy lullaby . . .’

Spying it some way up the bank, he began to move in that direction; but stopped when he saw a shadow fall across the tin.

Oswald looked up. Squinting against the setting sun, he saw the silhouette of a man on the bank above him. Dressed in hiking clothes – breeches of some kind – topped by a baggy sweater, he stood faceless in the shadow cast by his hat brim.

‘Yes . . . ?’

Uncertain as ever, Oswald hesitated – and in that moment recognition dawned on him and he stared, open-mouthed, as the figure moved, coming down the bank towards him with unhurried steps.

‘What in heaven’s name—?’

The question died on his lips. He had been gaping in wonder at the face beneath the hat brim. But then the glint of metal had caught his eye, and his heart had lurched.

‘No—’

The word was his last. Struck dumb in the last minutes of his life, in the grip not only of terror but of sheer disbelief, he could only stay where he was, planted like a tree on the bank, crouched over his knees, until he felt the cold touch of steel on his neck.

And then nothing more.

PART ONE

1

‘You keep thinking nothing will surprise you in this job. Then something like this comes along and all you can do is scratch your head.’

Vic Chivers took off his hat as if he was going to do just that, but mopped his brow instead. It was close to noon and the sun was high in the sky.

‘First, this Gibson fellow gets murdered in broad daylight, with no explanation. Then the bloke who shoots him vanishes into thin air.’

Glancing at him, Billy Styles thought Vic hadn’t changed all that much. Heavy-set, with a lantern jaw and dark, bushy eyebrows, he was pretty much the same chap he remembered from the days when they had learned their trade together as young detective-constables with the Metropolitan Police. Good-humoured, sharper than he looked and something of a wag, Vic had resigned from the Met in the late twenties after marrying a Brighton girl and had joined the Sussex county force. Now, like Billy, he was an inspector and the senior CID man stationed in the town of Lewes.

‘And to top it all, we get a call from your lot telling us the Yard wants to stick its nose in.’

Vic had been at the station to meet Billy when he’d stepped off the London train earlier that morning and had driven him to a village called Kingston, on the outskirts of Lewes, where they had left their car and set off on foot down a narrow lane that led from the hamlet into the surrounding countryside.

‘So get off your high horse, old chum, and tell me what’s going on?’

Billy chuckled. ‘Before we get to that, there’s something I need to know. I read in your report that Gibson was shot from close up. How close exactly?’

‘From no more than six inches away, according to the pathologist. There were powder burns on the collar of his shirt and on the back of his neck, too. And in case you’re wondering, the bullet was a nine-millimetre slug. We got the ballistics report this morning.’

‘Just one other question then.’ Billy kept pace with his colleague. ‘The report I read said that Gibson was on his knees when he was shot? Are you certain of that?’

‘As sure as I can be. I put it in the report, didn’t I?’ Vic winked at him. ‘But I’m still waiting to hear why the Yard is so interested.’

He apparently didn’t think it worth pointing out that normally Scotland Yard was only called in to cases outside the London area at the express request of a chief constable, and that in this case it was the Yard that had initiated the contact.

‘Come on, Billy – what do you know that we don’t?’

‘Not that much; only that there was a murder like this up in Scotland last month. A man was killed in the same way: shot in the back of the head, at the base of the skull, actually. It was very precise. There’s no obvious connection, but since the Scottish police haven’t any leads, it was thought I ought to come down here and take a look at this. Tell you what: let’s deal with your one first. Then I’ll fill you in on the other.’

‘Fair enough.’

Satisfied – for the moment at least – Vic strode on, with Billy at his heels now. They had left the village behind and the lane they’d been following had petered out into a dirt road, which in turn dwindled to a footpath that joined the course of a stream running through a valley. Lewes itself lay on the South Downs, and the green hillocks on either side of the town, gashed white with chalk, were part of the long chain of grassy uplands that stretched across much of southern England.

‘It’s downstream from here, the place where he was killed,’ Chivers announced, talking over his shoulder as he led the way. Ahead of them Billy could see the narrow waterway meandering down the valley, shaded here and there by the odd tree and flanked by a tangle of low bushes. On either side of it the land rose in steep, grass-covered slopes topped by rounded hillocks. He had passed through the South Downs often enough on his way to Brighton with Elsie and the kids for a day by the seaside. But this was the first time he had paused long enough to take in the rolling green countryside. ‘And, just to fill you in, Gibson was sixty-two: he was deputy manager of a bank in Lewes until he retired. He and his wife – late wife – both came from London originally, but they decided to settle here when he quit his job. She died a year ago, but he stayed on. And before you ask, he was a model citizen: no form, no questionable associates, no enemies. In fact, from all we’ve been able to learn, he seems to have spent his whole life trying not to offend people. But if that’s the case, it doesn’t seem to have worked.’ He shrugged.

‘As for his movements, we know that before he was shot he went away for a few days to stay with an old colleague of his from the bank, who retired to Hastings. The fellow rang us up when he heard about the shooting. The day after Gibson got back – that would be the Tuesday of this week – he went out fishing. It’s how he spent most of his time. He left his cottage around two o’clock. That’s confirmed by his daily; she says it was his usual routine. He always fished from the same place, and we know he was killed just after five because the shot was heard by a couple of fishermen who were a little way downstream from him.’

Vic paused. He seemed to be considering his next words. ‘What’s hard to stomach about this, Billy – what really gets my goat – is that the killer was seen. We’ve got a description of him. What’s more, he knew he’d been spotted. You must have read that in my report. But somehow he still managed to vanish.’

‘So I noticed. It’s something I want to talk to you about.’

‘Good.’ Vic spoke over his shoulder. ‘Because I’ve got plenty to tell you. But let’s wait till we get there. It’ll be easier to explain.’

He continued his steady plod, Billy following in his wake, and after a few minutes they came to an open, grassy area sloping down to the stream, free of bushes and overhung by a giant oak tree. The space had been cordoned off with tape tied to metal posts and hung with a pair of police signs, warning the public to keep off.

‘This is the place.’

As he spoke a uniformed constable stepped out of the shadow cast by the oak tree, touching his helmet as he did so. ‘Morning, Boon.’ Vic acknowledged his salute with a nod. ‘This is Inspector Styles, from London.’ To Billy he said, ‘Boon was the first officer at the scene. I thought you might have some questions for him.’

Billy nodded a greeting to the young man. ‘You can tell me where the body was, for a start,’ he said.

‘It was over here, sir.’

Boon moved down the slope closer to the water and pointed to the ground.

‘He was lying face-down, with his rod and an old basket that he used as a creel on the grass next to him.’

‘What made you think he was on his knees when he was shot?’ Billy put the question to Chivers.

‘Because our witness saw him kneeling. And that was just before he was killed.’

‘What about this witness? I read he was a shepherd?’ ‘That’s right: name of Hammond.’ Vic turned round. ‘He was up there by that copse, watching over his flock of sheep.’ He pointed to the slope behind them and Billy saw the clump of trees he was indicating near the top of the ridge. ‘He said he’d noticed Gibson fishing – he knew him by sight – and, shortly before he was killed, he saw a man walking up the path towards him.’

He pointed again, this time downstream from where they were standing.

‘Hammond had plenty of time to take in his appearance. He said it was hard to judge how tall the man was from where he was standing up on the hill, but he seemed to be of average size and looked young, judging by the way he strode up the path. He was wearing tan-coloured trousers and a cherry-red sweater and had a hat on, and a knapsack on his back.’ Chivers paused. ‘And now comes the strange part. Hammond had decided to start moving the sheep back to his farm – it’s some way down the valley – and he whistled to his dog. The man on the path, the killer, heard it. He looked up, Hammond said. He actually paused for a moment. But he didn’t stop. He went on. It made me wonder if he was all there.’

He waited for Billy’s reaction.

‘Was there anyone else around?’

Chivers shook his head. ‘Not according to Hammond. Earlier in the afternoon he’d seen some hikers go by on their way to the Downs. But they were in groups.’

‘He didn’t see anyone on his own?’

‘That’s correct, and certainly not this fellow. Hammond said he would have remembered the sweater. It was bright red. Later on he saw those two fishermen who heard the shot. They came over the ridge and he saw them disappear into the bushes. When I spoke to them the next day I realized they must have been about a hundred yards downstream from here.’

‘Then the man Hammond saw walking up the path must have gone by them?’

‘He must have. But they didn’t see him. The bushes are quite thick at that point and most likely he didn’t see them, either. Anyway, Hammond spotted this bloke, as I say, and watched as he walked up the path to where Gibson was fishing – here, in fact – and then stop and go down the bank to talk to him.’

‘He could see they were speaking?’ Billy interrupted. ‘I’m not sure about that, and neither is Hammond, but it looked like it.’ Chivers shrugged. ‘Gibson had been bending down, getting his stuff together. He seemed to be on the point of leaving. Then this man appeared and Hammond saw them facing each other, as close as you are to me, and he watched as Gibson went down on his knees in front of the man. But then he turned away . . .’

‘He turned away?’ Billy scowled. ‘Hammond did? Why?’ ‘Because of his sheep.’ Chivers shrugged. ‘They were starting to move, and for the next few minutes he was busy with them. When he finally glanced down at the stream again he saw there was someone lying on the bank.’

‘Hang on a minute,’ Billy cut in. ‘What about the shot? Didn’t he hear it?’

‘Yes and no.’ Vic shrugged. ‘He heard something, but didn’t realize it was a shot until later, when he found the body. He was some way away, remember, up on the hill, whistling to his dog; besides that, he’s an old boy and hard of hearing.’

‘But he saw the body. He must have known something was wrong.’

‘Well, he wasn’t sure it was a dead body, not at first: just somebody lying there. But then he spotted the man in the sweater walking back down the path in the direction he’d come from. And just walking, mind you; not running, not hurrying. Just striding along, as cool as you please.’

He shook his head.

‘By that time Hammond had decided he ought to do something and he went down to the stream. When he found Gibson lying there with a hole in the back of his head, he climbed back up to the path to see if he could spot the other chap. But he’d vanished. So Hammond did the next best thing and legged it as fast as he could into Kingston, which is where he ran into Boon.’

He turned to the young officer.

‘All right, Constable. It’s your turn now.’

Boon straightened.

‘I’d just come off duty, sir.’ He addressed himself to Billy. ‘I live with my mum and dad in Kingston and, as I reached our gate, I saw Mr Hammond coming up the road towards me, half-running. He was out of breath and could hardly get his words out. When he told me about Mr Gibson being dead and described the man he’d seen with him, I rang Mr Chivers at once, and he told me to go back to the stream with Mr Hammond and wait by the body. But just as we were setting off I saw some hikers coming back from the Downs. I knew they must have been on the same path and I asked them if they had seen the body. They told me they hadn’t, and when I got out to the stream I saw why. It was lying near the bottom of the bank; easy to miss. And, besides, it was getting dark.’

‘What about the shooter?’ Billy asked. ‘Surely he was on that same path.’

‘He was when Mr Hammond spotted him.’ Boon nodded. ‘But the hikers never saw him, so he must have got off it.

‘These hikers . . . Were they all together? Are you sure he wasn’t one of them? Couldn’t he have slipped past you that way?’

‘No, sir, he couldn’t have.’ Boon spoke firmly. ‘There were seven of them: two couples who’d been together, and three ladies who were walking on their own. As it happened, I recognized one of the couples by sight. They’re members of a ramblers’ club in Brighton and I’ve seen them up here before. The other couple were friends of theirs. Anyway, Mr Hammond said it wasn’t either of the men. The bloke he’d seen was younger and dressed differently—’

‘They’ve all been spoken to,’ Chivers interrupted. ‘The couples went back to Brighton as soon as they reached the station, but after Boon alerted me I arranged for them to be met and interviewed when they stepped off the train. The three women were staying in the same hotel in Lewes. I questioned them myself the next morning. They’d been on the Downs all afternoon, but none of them remembered seeing anyone like the man Hammond described.’

‘So what happened to him?’ Billy looked from one to the other.

‘That’s the question.’ Vic looked rueful. ‘And I wish I had an answer. It’s pretty certain he never came into Lewes. He was going in the opposite direction when Hammond saw him, heading for the South Downs Way, which links up with a track called Jugg’s Road that’ll take you to the outskirts of Brighton.’

‘Didn’t you say it was getting dark?’

‘Yes, but with a torch and an Ordnance Survey map he could have found his way easy enough. And he must have known he’d have to get off the Downs before daylight; that we’d have searchers out from early next morning, which we did. His description was circulated to every police station and village bobby in the area. If he’d still been out there, we’d have collared him, Billy. You can be sure of that.’

‘So you reckon it had to be Brighton he was heading for?’ ‘It was the only place that made sense. He could have walked down to Newhaven, I suppose, but that would have taken him all night, and we had it covered. Unless he lived locally – which seemed unlikely then, and even more so now, given the enquiries we’ve been making – he would have been looking to leave the area, and I had the police in Brighton checking the trains and buses that night and for the next few days. There was no sign of him.’

‘Could he have had a car?’ Billy wondered. ‘Could he have got out that way?’

‘From the Downs? Not a chance.’ Vic dismissed the idea. ‘There just aren’t the roads. Never mind petrol rationing.’

He shrugged.

‘The truth is I can’t explain how he disappeared. For my money, he’s a blooming Houdini.’

 

‘And that’s only the half of it.’

Leaving the constable to continue his vigil, Billy and Vic had started back on the path to Kingston. But Vic wasn’t done yet.

‘It’s bad enough that he was able to slip through our fingers so easily. But what brought him here in the first place? Did he come looking for Gibson in particular, or was he out to pot anyone? Is he a loony?’

Vic let the question hang there in the air between them for some moments. Then he shrugged.

‘I think we can safely say Gibson wasn’t expecting trouble or he wouldn’t have gone wandering off on his own. But all that says is that he’d probably be just as surprised as the rest of us. If he wasn’t dead, that is.’

He shot a glance at Billy.

‘I don’t suppose you can shed any light on all that?’ ‘I’m afraid not, Vic.’

‘Then tell me what happened up in Scotland. Who was the lucky bloke there?’

‘A doctor called Wallace Drummond, a GP in Ballater. That’s in Aberdeenshire. It happened a month ago.’

They had reached the outskirts of the village and Billy paused beside a wooden bench placed conveniently under a chestnut tree at the edge of the lane.

‘Why not?’ Vic guessed his intention. ‘I could do with a breather myself.’ They sat down, but when Billy offered him a cigarette, Vic shook his head. ‘I gave up during the war. They were starting to taste like sawdust.’

‘They still do.’ Billy drew in a lungful of smoke. ‘As I said, this Drummond bloke was murdered in the same way as Gibson. A single bullet in the back of the head: nine-millimetre, same as yours. It happened in his surgery and he was made to kneel down, just like Gibson was.’

‘How did they know that?’

‘The poor chap wet himself before he was killed. He must have known what was coming. The urine ran down his thighs and his trousers were stained as far as his knees, but no further. So although he was found lying face-down, the police there reckoned he’d been kneeling when the bullet struck him.’

‘Any witnesses?’

Billy shook his head. ‘Drummond’s rooms were above a shop: he lived out of town. It was late afternoon, but the shop was still open and the owner heard the sound of the shot from below. He didn’t know what it was, but he was concerned enough to go up to the floor above and try the door to Drummond’s rooms. It was locked, and after he had knocked on it and called out a couple of times, he concluded there was no one there and went back downstairs. It wasn’t until later that evening that the body was found. After her husband failed to return home, Mrs Drummond rang the local police station and they went round to his rooms.’

‘So the killer wasn’t seen at any point?’ Vic had been paying close attention.

‘Apparently not. The shot was heard at about a quarter-past five, and soon after that the shopkeeper closed up for the day and went home. The shooter must have waited for a while until the street below had emptied. That’s what the police thought, anyway.’

‘A cool customer, in other words. Just like our bloke.’ Chivers scowled.

‘So the coppers up there were stumped. There seemed no reason why anyone should have shot the chap. He had no enemies, as far as they could tell. Nothing had been stolen from his surgery. The investigation was handled by the Aberdeen police. They sent their report to Edinburgh, who forwarded it to the Yard. They weren’t asking us to do anything; they just thought they ought to bring it to our attention.’

‘Kind of them.’ Vic sniffed.

‘After we heard about the shooting down here, we asked them to send us their bullet. It’s on its way to London now. I’ll have to take yours back with me when I go. We’ve cleared it with Brighton.’

‘Fine by me.’ Chivers shrugged. ‘But it’s hard to see any connection – other than the two men being used for target practice. A Scottish medico and a deputy bank manager? You’re not going to tell me they were acquainted.’

‘Not as far as we know.’ Billy trod on his cigarette. ‘That’s all I’ve got to tell you. We’re going to have to wait on ballistics now. But I’ve got a few questions still. Is there anyone around we could talk to – someone who knew Gibson well?’ ‘There’s his brother, name of Edward. He lives in London, but he came down when he heard the news. And Gibson’s daily, a Mrs Gannet. I’ve spoken to both of them, but only briefly. Mrs Gannet was at Gibson’s cottage the day he was killed: she was there when he went off fishing, but he hadn’t returned by the time she left, so she didn’t find out what had happened to him until the next morning. His brother’s staying at the cottage. I told them both to expect us.’

‘Then let’s go and see them, shall we?’

2

‘I keep having to pinch myself. I can still hardly believe this happened – and to Oswald, of all people . . .’

Edward Gibson shook his head helplessly. Stout, with pink cheeks and a fringe of hair like a monk’s tonsure around his bald pate, he came across – admittedly on short acquaintance – as a cheerful type forced into a role that didn’t suit him: that of a grieving brother. Or so Billy thought, as he listened to Edward sigh and watched as he stared out of the window, seemingly at a loss for words. A solicitor by profession, he had greeted them in shirtsleeves at the door when they knocked, and explained that he’d been busy going through his brother’s papers.

‘I’ve already told you he had no enemies, but it was more than that. Poor Ozzie – he’d do anything to avoid trouble. I used to tell him, right back from the time when we were boys, that he shouldn’t let people push him around. But he was a timid soul.’

He had led the detectives into a small sitting room at the front of the cottage, where Billy’s eye had been drawn to a framed photograph of two men – one of them Edward Gibson, the other his brother – standing on a table near the window. It was Billy’s first glimpse of the man whose violent end they had been discussing and it came as no surprise, after what Vic had said, to discover that Oswald’s appearance was unremarkable. The snapshot, taken in a garden, showed the brothers standing beside a fishpond: Edward, smiling, with a straw hat pushed back on his head and seeming to enjoy the moment, stood with his arms akimbo, while Oswald, shorter by a few inches and pale of face, looked up at his elder sibling with a wistful expression.

‘He let people walk all over him – his wife in particular. It’s not for me to judge, but they had a rotten marriage. He wouldn’t stand up to her, and she despised him for it. When she died last year I think it came as a relief to poor Oswald. He was finally free of her. They were free of each other.’

He looked at them.

‘That sounds harsh, I know, but the point I’m making is that Ozzie was a happy man after that, happier than he’d ever been. He had already retired from the bank. He had enough to get by on, and he set about trying to enjoy his life for the first time. He had his fishing – he loved that – and his stamp collection, and enough friends that he wasn’t lonely. There was nothing in his life to distress him: if there had been, I’d have been the first to know about it. I’ve been going through his stuff all morning, hoping I could find something that might explain this – a clue even – but there’s nothing, absolutely nothing.’

He waited, hoping for a response perhaps, but Billy stayed silent. It was better to let the man talk, he thought.

‘There’s no denying Ozzie found life a struggle. He was always expecting the worst, waiting for the next blow to fall. But he was my brother, and I loved him. And this – what happened to him . . . It’s outrageous.’

His glance challenged them to deny the assertion. Billy acknowledged the word with a nod.

‘That’s just how it seems to us, sir. Outrageous. But we still have to look for an explanation, if there is one. It helps that you’re a solicitor: you know how police inquiries proceed. We need to know if anything unusual happened to your brother lately, anything out of the ordinary. It might not have seemed important at the time, but—’

He broke off. He’d noticed a slight change of expression in the other man’s face: a look not so much of puzzlement, as of indecision.

‘Look, I don’t know if this is significant . . .’ Gibson seemed to gather himself. ‘But there was something he wanted to discuss with me.’

Billy waited.

‘I haven’t mentioned it, but I was due to come down this weekend anyway. On my own, as it happened – my wife had other plans – and Oswald was pleased at the thought that we’d have some time together. He was going to have another go at turning me into a fisherman, he said.’ Gibson smiled sadly. ‘Some chance of that! But the point is that he also said, when we spoke on the phone, there was something he wanted my advice on.’

‘Did he say what?’

Gibson shook his head. ‘I asked him the same question, but he said he’d tell me when I came down. It was too complicated to explain on the telephone.’

‘Complicated?’ Chivers spoke up.

‘That was the word he used.’ Gibson frowned. ‘But I could tell it wasn’t serious, or urgent.’ He looked at them both. ‘I knew my brother well, believe me. In fact I was the person he usually turned to. I knew when he was worried or upset, and that wasn’t the case. It was just something that he mentioned. I was struck by how cheerful he sounded – he was looking forward to our weekend together.’

He sat back. Billy waited until he was sure Gibson had finished.

‘Well, thank you for telling us that,’ he said. ‘We’ll keep it in mind.’

The solicitor turned his gaze on him. His eyes had narrowed slightly and his next words confirmed an impression Billy already had that his initial judgement of the man might have been wide of the mark: Gibson was a lot shrewder than he looked.

‘Before we part, there’s something I’d like to ask you, Inspector. How does Scotland Yard come to be involved in this? There must be a reason.’ When Billy failed to reply at once, he added, ‘As you said yourself, I’m a solicitor. I know the drill.’

Billy shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t say involved exactly. Not yet, at any rate. But we’ve had a report of a similar shooting in Ballater, in Scotland. It’s possible the two cases are linked, which is why I’m here.’

‘Ballater?’ Gibson looked bemused. ‘I think I can safely say Oswald had no connections north of the border, or any contacts that I was aware of. We were born in London, both of us, and he spent all of his working life in the south. He joined the bank when he was quite young, before the First World War, and stayed with them until he retired. I can give you a list of the places where he worked. They were all in the south.’

‘That could be useful.’

Gibson rubbed his chin. ‘Have you considered that this might be a tragic error? That Ozzie was mistaken for someone else?’

‘What do you mean exactly, sir?’

‘This man who shot him – the one who was seen walking off afterwards – doesn’t his behaviour strike you as odd, almost unbalanced?’ He looked at the two detectives. ‘I mean, there was poor Ozzie, busy with his fishing and, as far as I can gather, this man simply walked up to him and shot him. Might he not be deranged?’

‘Acting at random, you mean? Looking for anyone to shoot at?’ Billy caught Chivers’s eye. ‘It’s certainly a possibility. We’ve thought of that. Although it’s true people like that generally utter threats in advance and act in irrational ways, it’s not always the case. They don’t necessarily seem disturbed, at least not to the casual eye.’

Billy paused deliberately.

‘By the way, sir, I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention any of this to the press; or what I said about Scotland. We don’t want to stir them up.’

His words brought a tired smile to Edward Gibson’s lips. ‘They won’t hear it from me, rest assured. But I should warn you, some of the newspapers have been on to me already, asking questions. It’s not every day a man gets shot in broad daylight. It won’t take much to get them going. I’m surprised they haven’t picked up on that Scottish report yet.’ ‘They’re bound to – and soon. But I’d rather not do their work for them.’

‘Quite so.’ Gibson made as if to get up. ‘But fair’s fair. Can I count on you to keep me informed about the investigation? I don’t want to be left in the dark.’

‘We’ll stay in touch, I promise.’

‘Then I’d better get back to those papers.’ He heaved himself up. ‘You wanted a word with Mrs Gannet, is that right? She’s in the kitchen. I’ll send her through.’

 

‘What did I tell you, Billy? This is one of those cases. It’s going to give us both grey hairs, you mark my words.’

Tilting his chair back, Vic hoisted his feet up on his desk. They had returned from Kingston a short while before and he had sent out to the nearest pub for a couple of sandwiches, which they were washing down with cups of tea before Billy caught his train back to London. The CID offices were situated on the first floor of Lewes police station, and on their way in Vic had introduced him to a detective-sergeant and two constables, who were busy sorting through statements collected from parties of hikers and ramblers who had been out on the Downs on the day Gibson had been murdered.

‘We know the shooter didn’t escape this way, via Lewes,’ Vic said. ‘I’ve been hoping he might have been spotted walking cross-country towards Brighton. But no luck so far, I’m afraid.’

‘If Gibson was his target – if it wasn’t a random killing – then he must have known he’d be fishing there.’ Billy had been turning the problem over in his mind. ‘He must have had some idea of his habits; that suggests he made some earlier visits to Lewes.’

He been looking over the file compiled by the pathologist while he chewed on a cheese sandwich. The police photographs of Gibson’s body lying face-down on the bank had added little to what his colleague had already told him. Other pictures taken at the mortuary later showed the effects of the bullet, which struck him at the base of the skull and exited through his jaw, leaving an ugly wound.

‘The sawbones made an interesting point,’ Chivers had told him. ‘If you want to make a clean job of topping someone, that’s the best spot to shoot them: it breaks the spinal cord, severs the brainstem. Death’s instantaneous.’

‘So he knew what he was about?’

‘It looks that way.’

Billy put down the file. He took a sip from his tea. ‘What I’d like to know is who that visitor was who got Oswald so upset. And did the letter he was writing have anything to do with this business?’

These facts, both new, had emerged in the course of the interview they had had with Gibson’s daily, a spry old party named Edna Gannet, who had not only proved to be more observant than most, but could also put two and two together. As she’d been quick to point out.

‘As soon as I saw the chair, I knew. He didn’t have to say nothing. And I could tell he was put out. I’d heard him in the study going on about it, muttering to himself. “Some people,” he was saying. “Some people . . . !”’

Small in stature, and with a face as brown and wrinkled as a prune, Mrs Gannet had seated herself on the sofa at Chivers’s invitation and regarded them both with a steady, birdlike stare. Unprompted, she had given them a brief description of her late employer.

‘He was a nice gentleman, very quiet, very polite. But he couldn’t be doing with fuss. He hated being bothered. Fishing was what he liked best, I soon learned that. The first thing I’d do when I arrived was fix him his lunch – a sandwich, say, or a cold sausage with a piece of cheese – and he’d take it with him when he went off; and either I’d see him when he got back or I wouldn’t, depending on how late he stayed out.’

Asked whether there’d been any change in Gibson’s behaviour prior to his death, she had replied in the negative. But when Billy, remembering what Edward Gibson had told them, asked if she thought her employer had had something on his mind, she had surprised both detectives by giving the question what appeared to be long and serious thought.

‘He did have that visitor,’ she had ventured, finally. ‘What visitor?’ Chivers had been the quicker with his question.

‘Don’t know who it was.’ Edna Gannet had shrugged. ‘I never did see. But I heard the front door slam and Mr Gibson’s footsteps when he walked back from the hall to his study. He was going on about something, talking to himself. In a rare state, he was.’

Further questions had elicited a more coherent account of the episode, which, it turned out, had occurred the previous week – on the Tuesday, Mrs Gannet thought it was. She had arrived at the cottage at her usual hour, which was midday, but via the backyard and the kitchen door, having looked in on a friend who was ailing and whose own cottage lay on the other side of a small orchard at the back of Gibson’s house. As she had entered she had heard the front door slam and her employer returning to his study. Shortly afterwards, having also heard his subdued mutterings and overcome with curiosity, she had knocked on the door on the pretext of asking him what he wanted for his lunch and had found him sitting at his desk ‘with a look on his face that’d turn milk sour’.

Later, when she’d returned with the spam sandwich he’d requested wrapped in greaseproof paper, she had found him busy at the desk writing a letter. He had barely looked up, she said.

‘Yes, but how do you know he’d had a visitor?’ Billy had asked.

‘By the chair, of course.’ To Edna Gannet it had been obvious. ‘See, he had this stamp collection and he kept it on a table in the corner with a chair next to it, so he could sit down there when he wanted to. But the chair had been moved: it was standing in front of the desk, so he must have had a visitor.’ Her glance had been triumphant. ‘Anyway, how did the front door come to slam, and who else could he have been talking about, muttering that way? “Some people . . . some people . . .” ’

Before leaving, the two detectives had looked in at the study where Edward Gibson was at work, the desk in front of him awash with files and papers, to ask him if his brother had mentioned being upset by a visitor, when they had spoken on the phone.

‘It’s the first I’ve heard of it,’ he had told them. ‘Perhaps that was what he wanted to talk to me about.’

‘Mrs Gannet saw him writing a letter afterwards.’ Looking around, Billy had noted the position of the chair she had mentioned. It had been returned to its proper place beside a table in the corner, where a pile of stamp albums lay. On the wall above was a photograph of a young man in military uniform and it took Billy a moment or two before he recognized Oswald Gibson’s features in the youthful image. ‘We’re wondering if the two were connected – the caller and the letter.’

In response Gibson had turned his hands palm upwards, showing them to be empty. ‘I wish I could help,’ he had said. ‘But I’m as much at a loss as you are.’

 

The station clock at Waterloo was showing ten minutes past five when Billy got back to London. A journey that was supposed to have taken less than two hours had taken three instead. Along with the other passengers he had endured the delay philosophically, there being not much else one could do these days. The optimism felt in the country at large when the war had ended two years earlier had all but evaporated; the expectation that life would soon be back to normal now seemed a distant dream. Food was still rationed, clothing hard to come by, housing in short supply and petrol all but unobtainable. It seemed hardly reasonable in the circumstances to expect the trains to run on time; and they didn’t.

‘Grey hairs, Billy. Grey hairs . . .’

Vic Chivers’s parting words as he had waved his colleague off were still echoing in Billy’s mind as he left the station in a taxi. Although Gibson’s murder remained a Sussex case, the two detectives had agreed to keep in touch and Vic had promised to let Billy know if the possible leads they had uncovered earlier that day led anywhere.

‘We’re going to have to talk to everyone in the village,’ he had said. ‘Maybe one of them caught a glimpse of Gibson’s visitor. In a small place like that strangers are noticed. It’d be useful to get a description. And then there’s that letter. Just who was he writing to? I wonder. At least we know it wasn’t brother Edward.’

On the off-chance that the address on the envelope might have been noted, Vic had decided to return to Kingston to ask in the village shop, which also served as a post office. When Billy wondered aloud whether it was worth the trouble, his colleague had chuckled.

‘You city lads don’t know about village life. You wouldn’t believe how nosy people are. I’d lay odds they’ll be able to tell me whether or not Gibson posted a letter last week. The only question is: did someone take a peek at the address?’

But he’d been under no illusions.

‘Odds-on it’ll turn out to be a wild goose chase,’ he’d predicted, pessimistically, as they waited on the platform together. ‘Whatever the problem with this caller was – and just because it got Oswald in a state doesn’t mean it was serious – we’ve no reason to think it had anything to do with him getting topped a week later. Same goes for the letter. The inquest’s tomorrow and, as things stand, I’ve got sweet fanny to tell the coroner, and not much prospect of any improvement in that department. Grey hairs, Billy. Grey hairs . . .’

Given the hour, Billy would have liked to call it a day and go straight home to Clapham, where he lived. But he was carrying the bullet used to kill Oswald Gibson in an envelope in his pocket and he went instead to the Yard, so that he could leave it with the ballistics lab. The one recovered by the police in Scotland was on its way south and would arrive the following day. Before departing he looked in at his office and found a message on his desk to ring Detective-Inspector Chivers in Lewes.

‘You won’t believe what I’ve got to tell you . . .’ By the sound of it, Vic’s gloom had lifted at a stroke. ‘Ozzie never posted that letter, never finished it even. His brother found it among the stuff in his desk, dated last Tuesday. He’d started writing it on a pad and it was still there: he hadn’t torn the page out. He must have begun the letter, then changed his mind. But he didn’t destroy it.’

Billy listened as Vic recounted how he’d gone first to the post office, only to discover that Gibson hadn’t posted any letter there for some time, and had then called in at the cottage to see if Edward had found anything interesting among his brother’s papers.

‘He’d been trying to ring me at the station. He’d only just come across the pad.’

‘Well, what about it, Vic?’ Billy sensed that his old pal was enjoying drawing the story out. There’d better be a good punchline, he thought irritably. ‘Who was he writing to?’

‘The commissioner of Scotland Yard!’

There was a long pause.

‘Crikey!’ Billy breathed out the word. He was dumbstruck.

‘And that’s not all. He starts off by apologizing, saying how sorry he is to bother such a busy man, et cetera – this is Ozzie all over – but he’s trying to get in touch with someone who worked at the Yard a long time ago and he wonders whether they might have knowledge of his whereabouts . . .’

‘Yes, but who was it, for Christ’s sake?’ Billy’s patience had run out.

‘I thought you’d never ask. It turns out to be a bloke we both worked with. But you knew him a whole lot better than me.’

Vic chuckled.

‘Does the name Madden ring a bell?’


Excerpted from The Reckoning by Rennie Airth. Copyright © 2014 by Rennie Airth.
First published in the UK 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 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.

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 by J.B Morrison – Extract

The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81

1

On Frank Derrick’s eighty-first birthday he was run over by a milk float. He would have preferred a book token or some cufflinks, but it’s the thought that counts.

The milk float was travelling at about five miles an hour when the milkman somehow lost control of the slow-moving vehicle, mounting the narrow pavement and coming to a stop, with the wheels of the milk float in the air, on the low stone wall at the front of someone’s garden, sending crates of milk, empty bottles, cartons of cream and a few dozen eggs sliding off the back and onto the pavement.

Aside from making a mess of the garden of one of the expected big hitters in the upcoming Villages in Bloom competition, the milkman hadn’t done Frank any favours either. He was underneath the vehicle. The only part of his body visible to the outside world was his right arm, sticking out from underneath the milk float, his palm facing upwards, still holding on to the pint of milk he’d just been to Fullwind Food & Wine to buy. It was exactly what the scene really needed – more milk. The upended milk float, protruding pensioner’s arm and the steady stream of dairy produce floating down the gutter at the side of the road was like a spoof news story waiting for a punch line at the end of an episode of The Two Ronnies.

Frank was in hospital for three days. He had concussion, a broken arm and an acute fracture of one of the metatarsal bones in his left foot.

‘Like the footballers get,’ the doctor said. ‘Do you play football?’

‘Not any more. Not with this metatarsal injury.’

‘Well, anyhow. It should respond well to some fairly simple self-care techniques. RICE therapy.’

‘Ice therapy?’

‘No, rice.’

‘I don’t like rice. Never have.’

‘No. RICE. It’s an acronym. Rest, ice, compression and elevation.’

‘An acronym?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Like the stroke one?’

‘Like the stroke one,’ the doctor said. ‘I’ll find you a leaflet.’

Frank also had a broken toe – the one next to his big toe, the little piggy that stayed at home, which was also his prognosis: to stay at home. He had a few cuts, some tyre marks and bruising, and a face like squashed fruit. He looked like one of those horrific newspaper photographs of a mugged pensioner.

‘One or two of these cuts on your face may scar,’ the doctor said.

‘When you get to my age every cut is a scar.’

Frank’s right arm was in plaster from the wrist to just past his elbow. They’d set his arm at an angle. Like in a cartoon. His arm would be stuck in a curve for at least six weeks. He looked like he was permanently trying to shake hands with everyone. If you’d sawed his arm off at the shoulder and thrown it, it would have come back.

Before he left hospital Frank had to take the Mini Mental State Examination to check his cognitive state. A young and exhausted-looking doctor in a striped shirt with a plain collar and sweat patches under just the left armpit pulled up a plastic chair next to Frank’s hospital bed and flipped open an A4 pad of paper.

‘Right, Frank,’ he said. ‘This test is a standard test. Some of the questions are probably going to seem a bit easy and some of them less so. Are you ready?’

The doctor asked Frank what year it was, what season, what month and the date and day of the week. Frank got them all right – although the doctor didn’t say so. He just wrote stuff down and asked another question.

‘What country are we in?’

‘England.’

‘What city?’

‘Technically, it’s a town.’

‘You seem quite angry, Mr Derrick.’

‘I was run over by a milkman. How’s your day been?’

‘Yes. I see,’ the doctor said.

‘I just want to go home before I catch MMSE.’

‘That stands for Mini Mental State Examination, Mr Derrick. That’s what we’re doing now. I think you mean MRSA.’

‘What does that stand for?’

‘Deep breath,’ the doctor said and he took a deep breath. ‘Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.’ He smiled, pleased with himself as though he’d successfully pronounced the name of that famous Welsh railway station. ‘Now, shall we get to the end of the test?’

The doctor asked if Frank knew where he was and the name of the hospital and what ward they were on. Frank only passed on the name of the ward. The Mastermind trophy was as good as in the bag; he was picturing a place for it on the mantelpiece next to three porcelain penguins he’d never really liked that much. He was convinced the middle one was plotting a coup.

‘Now, Frank, I’m going to name three objects and I want you to repeat them back to me and try to remember them, okay?’

Frank nodded. It hurt his head.

‘Apple, pen, table,’ the doctor said.

‘Apple, pen, table.’

The doctor asked Frank to spell WORLD backwards and Frank said something about how it certainly was a backwards world. The doctor asked him to subtract seven from a hundred and then seven from the answer and to carry on doing so till he told him to stop. Frank made it as far as fifty-one and was a bit disappointed when the doctor said that was enough. He’d never been great at maths and thought that maybe the bang on the head had actually done him some good.

‘Can you tell me who the Prime Minister is?’

Frank told the doctor who the Prime Minister was and that he thought he was an idiot and that he, for one, had definitely not voted for him. The doctor said that wasn’t important.

‘Oh, but it’s very important.’

‘Great,’ the doctor said, but he didn’t mean that it was great at all and he skipped a couple of questions to make the test end sooner. He wanted Frank to go home as well. The doctor wanted to go home. Everyone in the hospital wanted to go home. Who wants to be in a hospital?

‘Can you remember the three objects I asked you to name earlier?’ the doctor said.

‘You mean the apple, the pen and the table?’

The doctor pointed at his wristwatch and asked Frank what it was.

‘It looks like quite a cheap wristwatch.’

The doctor wanted to punch Frank. If it wasn’t so frowned upon in his profession, perhaps he would have done.

There were a few more questions and a couple of physical tests, including folding a piece of paper and then unfolding it again and writing a sentence on the piece of paper. Frank wrote, ‘Can I go home now please?’

Later that day he was discharged from hospital. As the porter wheeled him to the lifts a nurse handed him a walking stick that he’d tried to leave behind when she’d given it to him earlier and a carrier bag containing his carton of milk. The milk had been out of the fridge for three days now and it was warm and probably turned into cottage cheese or clotted cream. Frank thanked the nurse and planned on leaving the bag in the ambulance on the way home.

After the accident Frank’s daughter offered to immediately drop everything and fly back from America to look after him but Frank said there was no need, she had far more important things to do, she had her own life to live, her own family to look after, he’d be fine, it didn’t even hurt that much, it was too far, don’t be silly, it would cost too much, all that kind of bollocks. What he really wanted her to do was hang up the phone and get a cab to the airport.

‘Let me at least arrange for somebody to come in and look after you,’ she said.

‘I can look after myself.’

‘Let me do some research online. Make a couple of phone calls. Just to see what the options are.’

‘Really, there is no need. It will cost a fortune. I’m fine. I’ve had worse hangovers.’

‘Dad.’

‘Don’t you have crime reconstruction shows in America? They’ll tie me to a chair and steal my pension.’

‘Dad.’

‘They’ll use my water tank as a toilet. Actually, that might be plumbers.’

‘Let me at least look into it. For my peace of mind, Dad. I don’t want to worry about whether you’ve got enough food or if you’ve set fire to the house making toast.’

‘Do you realise how much work I’ve put into keeping people out of my home? Word will get out. If I let Robin Williams in a dress come inside to strap me to a chair and steal my antiques, I’ll have a queue of boiler insurance salesmen and equity release people halfway up the road.’

‘Dad.’

‘I’ll have to get a revolving door fitted. I’m sure there’ll be somebody in the queue willing to sell me one. And once I’ve let in all the people who want to get inside my flat, what about all the people who want to get on top of it? That queue will stretch for miles. You’ll be able to join the back of it without leaving California.’

It was true. People were keen to get on Frank’s roof. His flat had something that there weren’t a lot of in Fullwindon-Sea: stairs. Fourteen of them. Making him the go-to guy for stair-lift companies, window cleaners, gutter clearers, chimney sweeps and roofers. Hardly a week went by without him having to make his way down those fourteen stairs to answer the door to a man sucking his teeth and shaking his head.

‘You do realise your roof is about to fall off ?’

Teeth-suck.

‘Your chimney is listing to the left.’

Head-shake.

‘Have you seen how bunged up your guttering is?’

Teethsuck. Head-shake.

Maybe his roof was about to collapse, but if he did let somebody up there, he wouldn’t be able to see what they were doing without walking fifty yards up the road with a pair of strong binoculars. He’d have no idea if they were actually fixing anything. They could be reading the newspaper or having a nap, or simply counting to fifteen thousand and then climbing back down to suck their teeth a bit more before presenting him with a bill for a million pounds.

Frank carried on telling Beth why he didn’t need any help and about not wanting strangers in his home and she didn’t interrupt. She let her dad complain because she knew it would make him feel better about the inevitable outcome – which was giving his daughter what she wanted. In this case, she wanted her dad to be safe and well.

He ranted a bit more and then he said, ‘I’m not going to tidy up. I’m not lighting candles and brewing fresh coffee.’

‘Of course not.’

The following day a man with an annoying whistle from the care company screwed a key safe to the outside wall of Frank’s flat. He put a front-door key inside the safe and programmed Frank’s birthday into the combination lock. Three days after that, in the middle of one of the hottest springs since records began, less than a month after Frank had finally got round to putting the fairy lights and tinsel back in the loft, Christmas came to Fullwind-on-Sea.

2

When Kelly Christmas parked her little blue car opposite Frank’s flat for the first time, with two wheels up on the grass verge, bumping into one of the white concrete bollards that were there to prevent people from parking on the grass verge, she did so in front of one of the largest captive audiences in the South of England.

A lot of people were at home on Sea Lane that day. A lot of nosy neighbours and bored pensioners, housebound by agoraphobia or because it was too hot to go outside or because they were waiting for hip replacements or for their mobility scooters to fully charge or because the free bus to the big Sainsbury’s doesn’t always run on Mondays. The crunching of the gears as Kelly tried to find reverse was a reveille for everyone to abandon their word searches and daytime auction shows and get to their windows.

As the only stair-rich person on the street, Frank had the best view. Every other building on Sea Lane was a bungalow. People were cricking their necks down in the cheap seats – which were actually more expensive – looking for something to stand on so that they could see who was making all the noise, furrowing tyre tracks into the grass and threatening Fullwind’s chances of a rosette if a judge from the Villages in Bloom competition turned up unannounced.

Frank watched the little blue car shift backwards and forwards on the verge opposite until it finally hit a concrete bollard. And then whoever was behind the wheel grew bored with parking, or perhaps they decided that it was the best they were going to be able to manage, or maybe they simply ran out of petrol.

He couldn’t see the driver’s face yet. He could just about make out that they had a face. Frank was 90 per cent certain that it was a woman. Maybe 95. She was nodding her head up and down and singing along with whatever music was playing on the car stereo. She checked her hair in the rearview mirror until she seemed happy enough with the way it looked to stop checking it.

At a quarter past eleven, the car door opened and the driver stepped out onto the grass verge and all the curtain twitchers and Venetian blind twiddlers tripped over their furniture and popped their new hips trying to see who it was. From up on the first floor Frank watched her put a ‘Nurse on Call’ sign in the windscreen of the car, lock the doors and walk across the road.

By the time she reached his front gate he could see the hair that she’d been checking in the mirror. Her fringe was cut perfectly straight. It underlined the top of her head, drawing attention to her face. She didn’t look as much like Robin Williams as he was expecting. And less like Margaret Thatcher or that woman from the James Bond film with the knives in her shoes, who also fitted Frank’s expected image of a home help nurse. He immediately regretted the dirty protest he’d been carrying out for the past five days.

Although Frank had agreed that Beth would pay someone to come round once a week for three months to tidy up, check he was taking his painkillers and stick a thermometer in his mouth (he hoped it was his mouth), he hadn’t said he wouldn’t do his best to make sure they didn’t get too comfortable and feel like hanging around long enough to steal his wallet or do a poo in the kettle.

For the next five days Frank slept in his clothes. He didn’t shave and his long white hair had started to dreadlock. He left his teeth in a glass in the bathroom and dirty dishes piled up in the sink. He deliberately dropped cake and biscuit crumbs on the living-room carpet. There were DVDs out of their boxes on the floor and – his pièce de résistance – he hadn’t flushed the toilet for two days.

The first time Kelly saw Frank he was in the hallway where he’d collapsed like Bambi while trying to make it to the toilet to flush it before she managed to force the front door over the hill of free newspapers and junk mail that had accumulated behind it. When Kelly appeared in the hall at the top of the stairs Frank had just made it back up onto his feet. He was out of breath and sweating, wearing slept-in clothes, all wild-haired and hairy-faced, looking like a black-and-white photograph on one of the many charity begging letters that came through his letterbox every week.

‘Mr Derrick?’ Kelly said. ‘I’m Kelly.’ She pulled her thin blue anorak to one side and lifted the badge on the front of her blue uniform to show him. She gave him enough time to read her name. ‘You look a bit flustered. Shall we go and sit down?’ She placed a hand on his good arm. Her touch was gentle and reassuring, firm but caring, calm but in control; all these things. She was like a hostage negotiator at a bank siege or a cowboy calming an angry horse. Kelly the pensioner whisperer. She led Frank quietly into the living room.

‘Armchair or sofa?’ she said.

‘Armchair please. You’ll have to excuse the mess,’ he said, referring to himself as much as he was to the living-room carpet.

‘You should see my flat,’ Kelly said. ‘You’d call the police to report a burglary.’

Frank sat down. He was breathing deeply.

‘You sit there for a bit,’ Kelly said, ‘and I’ll make some tea. Or coffee? Which do you prefer?’

‘Yes,’ Frank said. ‘Thank you. Tea please.’ He offered to show her where everything was kept but Kelly said not to worry.

‘People tend to keep things in the same place in their kitchens,’ she said.

While Kelly was in the kitchen, Frank sat back in his armchair and continued to make excuses for the mess.

‘I was in a traffic accident,’ he called out. Without his false teeth in, his speech was slurred. She probably thought he sounded as drunk as he looked.

‘I know,’ Kelly called out from the kitchen. ‘Do you have milk and sugar?’

Frank wondered if she was making a comical reference to his accident.

‘Just milk, thank you.’

While the kettle boiled Kelly came into the living room and picked up all the dirty plates and cups.

‘I haven’t had the chance to tidy up,’ Frank said.

‘That’s all right,’ Kelly said. She took the dirty dishes out to the kitchen. Frank wanted to get his teeth from the bathroom and flush the toilet but he was still feeling lightheaded and thought he might fall over again. She came back in and picked up the DVD cases from the carpet and put them on the table.

‘I’ll leave these for you to put away,’ she said. ‘In case you have a system.’

He had a system.

Frank’s alphabetised DVD collection was the only properly organised part of his life. It had taken him quite a while to do. Mainly because he’d spent so much of the time doing impressions of the actors in the films as he rearranged them – from cockney Michael Caine in Alfie to posh Michael Caine in Zulu.

Kelly brought Frank a cup of tea and put it on the table next to his armchair. She sat down on the sofa and took a wad of A4 notes out of her bag.

‘Let’s have a look at your care plan.’

While she read through her notes she asked Frank how he’d been feeling since he’d come home from the hospital, if he felt he was managing and if there was anything in particular he needed help with that hadn’t already been arranged with his daughter.

Frank said he couldn’t think of anything.

‘I’ll have a bit of a tidy and make your bed and you see if you can think of anything else in the meantime,’ Kelly said. While she was out of the room, Frank sat and looked at his reflection on the blank TV screen. He looked like Howard Hughes. It had taken ten years and millions of dollars for Howard Hughes to end up looking like that, Frank thought. And he had managed it without trying, in less than a week for no money whatsoever.

He could hear Kelly in his bedroom, singing quietly to herself. He heard her shutting the wardrobe door and drawing the curtains and then what sounded like her fluffing the pillows, and although it was obviously unlikely because there were two walls between them, Frank thought he felt a waft of air as she flapped the quilt into place on his bed. She sneezed three times, there was a ten-second pause when Frank imagined she was trying to stifle a fourth sneeze and then she sneezed again. On her way back to the living room she flushed the toilet.

‘I think the pollen count is high today,’ Kelly said when she came back into the living room.

After she’d checked again that Frank was definitely all right and safe to be left alone, she started to collect her things together to leave.

‘I can go to the shops for you on the way here next time, if there’s anything you need,’ she said, while Frank signed a time sheet to prove that she’d been there. His broken-armed signature looking like an unconvincing forgery, the ink lines wavering up and down the page like the polygraph of somebody telling an enormous lie. She put the time sheet back in her bag.

‘I’ll see you at the same time next week, Mr Derrick.’ ‘Yes, thank you. It will be you again, will it?’

‘Yes,’ Kelly said. ‘Me, I’m afraid. Every week for the next –’ she took a diary out of her bag and flipped a few pages over – ‘twelve weeks.’

She told him to ring the care company if he had any questions or if there was something in particular he’d like her to do on her next visit. She put her diary and the rest of her paperwork back in her bag, said goodbye and left.

Frank was surprised how sorry he was to see her go. The flat felt emptier than it had before she’d arrived. Was it always this quiet? He switched the TV on to fill the silence and to get rid of his reflection.

While he watched a mother and daughter on television in matching fleece tops lose money selling their family heirlooms at an auction, Frank wished he’d had his teeth in so that he could have talked more freely while Kelly was there. He wanted to tell her that he was usually a lot funnier than this. He wanted to apologise about the mess again. And he wanted to say that if she was going to be coming here every week from now on, she was going to have to start calling him Frank because he hated it when people called him Mr Derrick. It made him feel like he should be working with Basil Brush.

3

It was pitch-black when Frank woke up on Tuesday. He had no real idea how long he’d been asleep or what time it was. His watch was over on the bedside table, which seemed like a hundred miles away. He decided to wait until he heard the first aircraft taking off from Gatwick and flying over his flat. That would be around 5 a.m., which felt like an acceptable time to get out of bed. He didn’t want to give himself any extra empty daytime hours to fill. It was hard enough as it was.

By the time the day reached about 6.30 p.m., other than waiting for his dinner to digest, there was very little reason for Frank to stay up. He’d started going to bed so early that it was often still light outside. He had to buy thicker curtains from the charity shop to stop the sunlight keeping him awake.

Frank lay in bed waiting for the aeroplanes and thought about the extraordinarily dull dream he’d woken up from. In the dream he was in the queue at a supermarket checkout. There were no aliens or supermodels in the dream. The shopping in his basket didn’t talk to him or chase him down the road. It was hardly a dream at all.

The only real clue to it being a dream was that he was young in it. His shopping basket didn’t feel so heavy that he had to put it on the supermarket floor and gradually nudge it along with his foot every time the queue moved nearer the tills. He wasn’t wearing slippers. In the basket there were four cans of lager. No tinned spaghetti or soft and easy to digest meals-for-one. There was perhaps one other clue that it was a dream: it was the sense that there was somebody waiting for him at home to help put the shopping away. Frank placed the basket on the counter and the cashier looked at the cans of lager, then looked back at Frank and said, ‘Party?’

And then Frank woke up. The dream had ended.

But he still felt young.

There was nobody to help unpack his shopping.

But he still felt young.

Frank had discovered the secret of eternal life.

He just had to stay in bed.

Providing he didn’t get out of bed to creak and crick and groan and limp and fart and cough and wheeze and splutter and wobble his way to the bathroom he could stay young. As long as he didn’t see his face in the bathroom mirror or his teeth in a glass by the sink he could stay young.

Providing he didn’t get out of bed, or simply move too quickly, or go to the bathroom, or breathe in too deeply, or bite into a hard toffee or listen to music radio or watch television after 7 p.m. on a Saturday. He could stay in bed and be young forever.

He counted six planes pass overhead and wondered where they might be going to or coming from. He wondered if he’d ever fly in an aeroplane again. And where would he go? He didn’t have a valid passport any more. Weren’t they free for people of his age? He made a mental note to find out. He already had his free TV licence and bus pass. Even though there was nothing on television and nowhere to take the bus to. The older he got the more free access he had to things that he was too old to take full advantage of. A seventh aeroplane flew over. He closed his eyes and tried to get back to his dream. He was almost asleep again when the doorbell rang.

It would be a slow and difficult walk down the stairs to answer the door. And so, seeing as he wasn’t (ever) expecting anybody, he decided not to bother answering it. He closed his eyes. The doorbell rang again. He sighed and decided that he might as well at least get out of bed. He started to move and noticed a numb feeling in his legs. Like a cat had slept on them. Was this it? Is this how the end begins? Numbness in the legs? Spreading up the body. Paralysis and then death? Then he remembered that he did have a cat and it was sleeping on his legs. He shook the cat onto the floor and stood for a moment with his good hand resting against the wall, until he got his balance. When had feeling dizzy all the time started? Before or after the milk float accident?

He followed the cat into the kitchen, creaking and cricking and groaning and limping and farting and coughing and wheezing and spluttering and wobbling behind him.

In the kitchen he took a tin of cat food out from the cupboard under the sink and struggled to get it open. Even with the electric opener it wasn’t easy to open the can with one arm in plaster. He looked down at the cat.

‘I’m not very good at being retired, am I, Bill?’ Bill hadn’t seemed such a stupid name for a cat when Ben was still alive. ‘I should be playing golf or gardening.’ The tin of cat food slipped from the magnet of the opener and it dropped on the floor. Frank bent down to pick it up, groaning on the way down and again on the way back up. ‘I could be on a round-the-world cruise now, or brewing my own beer. I should have at least put my name on the waiting list for an allotment. Although, from what I hear, if I joined one now I doubt I’d make it to the top of the list in time to grow anything. Eh, Bill?’

Bill looked up at Frank, pulling the only face he had available. Bill’s expression was exactly the same when he was waiting to be fed as it was when he was filling his litter tray. It was like a paper mask, cut out from a magazine and attached by two rubber bands hooked over his ears. It was the same unfathomable blankness when Frank let him out into the garden in the morning as when he came back in again in the evening. Bill’s face gave nothing away of what he’d been up to all day. There were no clues as to whether he’d been chasing mice or birds or what territory he’d marked or which other cats he might be dating. Frank had seen both versions of Doctor Doolittle a number of times, he knew the words to some of the songs, he could probably even speak rhinoceros or chat to a chimp in Chimpanzee, but he still had no idea what it was that Bill was trying to say. Which, on this occasion, was:

To be honest, Frank, I couldn’t really give a shit about the quality of your retirement. Just make my fucking breakfast.

Frank opened the cat food and scooped the foul-smelling meat onto a saucer. He took a cup out of the cupboard, put a teabag in it, poured in the milk, flicked the kettle switch on and made his way slowly downstairs to get the newspaper.

The stairs had always creaked but now he wasn’t sure how much of the creaking was the stairs and how much was him. There were two silhouetted shapes on the other side of the frosted glass of the front door. Not fully awake yet he opened the door to two young men wearing suits and smiling broadly. The same two men who had rung his doorbell ten minutes earlier and had either come back or not yet left. ‘Good morning,’ the young man on the left said. ‘Could we ask you one very quick question?’

Without waiting for an answer, the one on the right said, ‘How do you feel about all the death in the world?’

Frank was ill prepared. He hadn’t made notes. He wasn’t dressed. He hadn’t even had a piss yet. What time was it? At least seven aeroplanes.

He stood on the doorstep not listening, nodding every once in a while and alternating his short responses between ‘Yes’, ‘Of course’ and ‘I see’, and looking anxiously up the stairs behind him as though he might be burning his breakfast or be in the middle of something important he needed to get back to. He wished he had his watch on so that he could look at it because the two men on his doorstep really weren’t getting the message.

They showed him their little fan club magazine. On the cover there was a drawing of a tiger in a garden or a forest with trees and flowers that didn’t exist in the real world. The tiger was playing with some children. Everyone in the picture looked so fantastically happy. The two young men carried on talking and Frank nodded and looked anxiously back up the stairs some more. He really needed to get back to his important meeting.

Frank wondered if he had enough strength in his body to make a fist and punch both men until they went away. Would that prevent him from spending his afterlife in paradise? Would it stop him from playing with all the smiling tigers and the happy children in the garden? He didn’t even know whether that was part of what they believed in. Would they turn the other cheek if he punched them? Was that one of theirs? He’d been given a ton of their little magazines over the years but had never actually read one. He made a mental note to look them up on the Internet next time he was in the library. Yes, Frank knew how to use the Internet. He could send emails, too, and he knew how to use a mobile phone. He could send you a text message with a smiley face at the end of it if he wanted to. Not that there was anybody for him to send a text message with a smiley face to, and there wasn’t really anyone other than his daughter to email. His inbox on the library’s computer was just another way in for the stair and bath lift people.

While the two men continued to talk he wondered, if he could make a fist, would he actually use it to punch anybody ever again? It wasn’t that he particularly wanted to punch anyone – not even present company excepted – it was just that he wondered whether punching someone was one of the things he would never do again. Like running or going on a bouncy castle, or chewing gum or eating corn on the cob. He needed to make a bucket list. He’d seen a film about it.

Eventually, the men stopped talking and Frank took their fanzine and closed the door. He was almost halfway up the stairs when he heard, ‘Vehicle reversing, vehicle reversing.’ He hadn’t put the bins out. He could still see the two men through the frosted glass. He didn’t want to open the door and give them a second go. Why did they always move so slowly? He waited until they eventually turned and dawdled down the path. But by the time they were finally gone, the dustmen were gone too and he would now have four weeks’ worth of uncollected rubbish at the end of the garden. The editor of the village newsletter would be writing him another letter to follow on from the one he’d sent last year suggesting that the village might have fared better in the Villages in Bloom competition if certain people, mentioning no names (Frank), had slightly greener fingers and slightly fewer old fridges in their front garden.

There was only ever the one fridge. It was gone now.


Excerpted from The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81 by J.B Morrison. Copyright © 2014 by J.B Morrison.

First published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 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.

The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry – Extract

The Last Kind Words Saloon

.1.

A hat came skipping down the main street of Long Grass, propelled only by the wind, which was sharp for March. The hat was brown felt and had a narrow brim.

“I believe that’s Doc Featherston’s hat,” Wyatt said. “He may have lost track of it while setting a limb.”

“Or, he might be over at the Orchid fornicating and let it blow out a window,” Doc Holliday suggested.

“Doubt it . . . only rich dentists such as yourself can afford the Orchid these days,” Wyatt said.

Doc drew his pistol and aimed at the hat but didn’t shoot.

“Why would a grown man want to be a dentist anyway?”

Wyatt inquired.

“Well, for one thing, the cost of equipment is low,” Doc told him. “All you need is a pair of pliers and maybe a chisel for difficult cases.”

At the mention of a chisel Wyatt turned pale—he had always been squeamish.

“I’m sorry I brought it up,” he said. “Are we going to sit here and let the good doctor’s hat blow clean away?”

A crow flew over. Doc shot at it twice, but missed. Wyatt walked out in the street and picked up the hat.

Across the street, at the establishment called the Orchid a tall woman in a purple dressing gown came out onto a little balcony and shook out her abundant black hair.

“There’s San Saba, what do you think about her?” Doc said. “I don’t often think about her,” Wyatt said. “Jessie’s all the female I can handle, and it ain’t a hundred percent that I can handle her.”

“Why do you ask?” he added.

“Just to be making conversation, I ain’t a mute like you,” Doc said. “And it’s the only whorehouse in town. They say if you can sprout up twelve inches of dick you get to fuck free.”

“Well, I can’t sprout it up and I doubt you can so let’s talk about something else,” Wyatt suggested.

Just then they heard a faint sound from the empty plains to the south of town.

“There ’s supposed to be a herd coming in today from Texas— I ’spect that’s it,” Doc said. “Where ’s your six-shooter?”

“It might be behind the bar,” Wyatt said. “It’s too heavy to carry around. If I see trouble springing up I can usually borrow a weapon from Wells Fargo or somebody.”

“Bat Masterson claims you’re the best pistol shot in the West,” Doc said. “He says you can hit a coyote at four hundred yards.”

“Hell, I couldn’t even see a dang coyote if it was that far away, unless they painted it red,” Wyatt said. “Bat should let me do my own bragging, if he can’t manage to be credible.”

“All right then, what’s the farthest distance you could hit a fat man?” Doc persisted, determined to get at least the elements of conversation out of the taciturn Wyatt, who ignored the question. In the distance it was just possible to see mounted figures, urging their horses at a dead run toward Long Grass.

“Those cowboys have probably been on the drive thirty or forty days,” Doc said. “They’re gonna want whiskey and whores, and want them quick.”

Just then there was a piercing whistle, followed moments later by a train from the east; the train had many empty boxcars and two passenger cars and a caboose. As soon as it came to a complete stop a skinny young man got off, carrying a satchel.

“There stands a dude, of sorts,” Doc said. “I wonder what the state of his molars might be.”

“Now, Doc, don’t be yanking teeth out of tourists,” Wyatt said, turning pale again at the mere suggestion of dentistry.

The rumble to the south had diminished; for a time it faded altogether.

“The cattle smelled the water—they’re over at the river, filling up,” Doc said. “The whores can sleep a little longer.”

“If you had twenty pearls would you give at least one or two to Jessie?” Doc inquired.

Wyatt ignored the question. His wife’s taste for finery was none of Doc’s business, that he could see.

One of the passenger cars was considerably fancier than the other. It was painted a royal purple. The skinny young dude took a moment to get his bearings and then came resolutely up the street.

“I wonder who’s in that blue car,” Doc said. “You don’t often see a car that fancy in these parts.”

He happened to glance to the south, where he saw two riders approaching. Wyatt noticed the same thing.

“Uh-oh,” Doc said. “It’s that damn Charlie Goodnight and his nigger.”

“You’re right—he was in that fracas in Mobetie,” Wyatt said. “They say that nigger is the best hand in the West at turning stampedes—it’s a rare skill.”

Just then Doc Featherston, owner of the bouncing bowler, walked out of the Orchid and fell flat on his face in the street.

“I guess San Saba likes the Doc,” Wyatt said. “Women sure are odd.”

Before Doc could weigh in on the oddity of women, San Saba herself walked out of the Orchid and strolled off toward the train track. The young man who had stepped off the train raised his hat to her. She took no notice of him, or of the prostrate doctor; nor did she so much as glance at the two men watching her from the porch of—according to its sign—The Last Kind Words Saloon. She went straight to the royal purple railroad car and rapped on the door, through which she was immediately admitted.

“Well, hell and damn,” Doc said.

His taciturn companion said nothing at all.

.2.

Charles Goodnight rarely troubled with pleasantries, but when he took note of the sign hanging over the saloon door he stopped and gave the sign a considered inspection.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if one of my cowboys shoots a hole in your sign,” he said.

“When will that be, Charlie?” Wyatt asked. “Soon as the herd’s penned,” Goodnight said.

“Ain’t it a little early to be driving cattle on the plains?” Doc said. “It’s no fun driving cattle in a howling blizzard, which are not uncommon in March.”

“Driving cattle ain’t fun, blizzard or no blizzard,” Goodnight said. “But there’s no train yet to my ranch, so here I am.” “Is that your sawbones sleeping in the street?” Goodnight asked. “If it’s who I think it is he once took a boil off my rump.

I’ve traveled more comfortably ever since.”

“There’s plenty of dentistry available here,” Doc pointed out.

“Another time, maybe,” Goodnight said. “I admire that sign, though I don’t know what it means.”

“It’s my brother Warren’s sign,” Wyatt said. “I seldom understand Warren, myself.”

While they talked, Bose Ikard, Goodnight’s black foreman, saw a large bull snake edging around the porch. In his years on the plains Bose had learned a thing or two, one of which was how to catch snakes by the tail. He quickly caught the snake, swung him around his head a few times as if he were swinging a lariat, and threw him across the street, out of harm’s way.

“He’s just as neat with rattlesnakes,” Goodnight volunteered.

“Bull snakes will charge you sometimes, and I am not a good enough shot to hit a charging snake.”

“Me neither,” Wyatt admitted. “I could probably hit a buffalo, though, if there were any left.”

“We could stand here talking all day, which would not earn us a cent,” Goodnight said. “Anybody get out of that blue railroad car?”

“No, but somebody went in it, the lovely San Saba,” Doc said.

“Good, I believe I’ll join the company,” Goodnight said. He dismounted, handed his reins to Bose, who led his horse back toward the livery stable.

“How do you know you’re invited, Charlie?” Wyatt asked.

Though he had no reason to be dismayed, he was dismayed.

Charlie Goodnight, in an excellent mood, was strolling down the street to join the most beautiful whore on the plains, and somebody rich enough to travel in a fancy railroad car. Private cars in royal purple or just plain blue didn’t show up in Long Grass every day.

“Hell and damn,” Doc repeated. He was puzzled too.

.3.

“Charlie Goodnight’s known to be irascible,” Wyatt said, to Doc. “It’s rare that he’s even polite.”

“What did you say he was?” Doc asked. “Irascible, clean out your damn ears,” Wyatt said.

“It’s too much word for me, that’s all,” Doc protested. “Some days you just talk funny.”

“Look, Charlie’s got Doc Featherston on his feet,” Wyatt said. “No doubt Charlie’s grateful—for a man in the saddle as much as he is, a boil on the rump would be vexatious.”

“I expect this dude is a cattle buyer,” Doc said. “Charlie didn’t drive his cattle all the way up here just to park them in a pen.”

Goodnight ignored the dude with the satchel and walked up and rapped on the door of the fancy railroad car, which opened immediately. A tall figure shook Goodnight’s hand vigorously and rapidly pulled him in.

Wyatt and Doc caught a glimpse of San Saba before the door closed.

“Today’s off to a peculiar start, I’d say,” Wyatt said.

Before Doc could answer, the dude with the satchel came in hearing distance.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” the skinny young man said.

“Could you direct me to the newspaper office? I’m a reporter, you see.”

“Or if there’s a boardinghouse nearby I might go there first and secure a room.”

“I’m Billy Pippin,” he added.

“Before you go to the trouble we best figure out if you’re in the right town,” Wyatt said. “This is Long Grass, which is nearly in Kansas, but not quite. It’s nearly in New Mexico, too, but not quite. Some have even suggested that we might be in Texas.”

“It depends on your notion of where Texas stops,” Doc said, for clarity’s sake.

By which point young Billy Pippin looked thoroughly confused.

“The one thing that’s certain is that Long Grass has no newspaper office,” Wyatt said.

“For that matter it has no news,” Wyatt told him. “Very little happens here, son.”

“But it will have some: Goodnight and Lord Ernle are about to partner up and have the biggest ranch in the world. I work for the Chicago Tribune. I’m expected to file a story. I need a telegraph.”

“Oh, if that’s all you want there’s one right over in Rita Blanca, if you can put up with the woman who runs it— I can’t,” Wyatt said.

“Miss Courtright, why she’s the very one who encouraged me to come,” Billy Pippin said.

“Nellie Courtright could peel paint off a fence, just by talking,” Doc said.

Billy Pippin looked defeated.

“How far is Rita Blanca?” he asked.

“Too far to walk,” Wyatt said. “But there’s buggies for hire if you’re rich.”

“No, no, I’m not rich,” Billy objected. “I’m just trying to file a story about this merger—the English lord and the Texas rancher, you know.”

Just then, to their surprise, San Saba stepped out of the railroad car. Four pigeons perched on her arm. One by one she held them up and released them. Two flew east and two flew south.

“They’re messenger pigeons, I’m scooped for sure,” Billy Pippin said. “Lord Ernle really means to get the news out.”

“News from pigeons! Where will the damned birds go?” Doc asked.

“One to Kansas City and probably one to Fort Worth,” Billy said.

“Hawks might get one—’spect why he sent out two,” Bose said.

“I’ve never supposed a damn pigeon could find its way to Fort Worth, and I ain’t convinced it will,” Wyatt said.

“Besides that, how does San Saba get to know a lord?” Doc asked. The migrations of beautiful women had always interested him.

“He bought her from a sultan—they say she’s a virgin,” Billy Pippin said. “My bosses want to know if it’s true.”

“A what?” Doc said, thinking he must have heard wrong. How many virgins spent their time running whorehouses on the plains?

Before they could discuss it further there was a rumble from the south.

“The cattle got penned, cowboys are coming,” Bose said. Wyatt moved quickly for the first time.

“I need to wake up my wife, she’s the best bartender in Long Grass,” he said.

“Save me a toddy,” Doc said, but by then Wyatt was long gone, into the Last Kind Words Saloon.

.4.

“You just made me a bartender so you could keep track of me in the afternoon . . . the slack time.”

“And the morning, and around midnight,” Wyatt said. “Besides, a little education don’t hurt,” he added.

“Bartender’s school in Kansas City ain’t exactly education,” Jessie pointed out. It irritated her that her husband was so hard to talk to. Three or four complaints in a row and he’d usually slap her, and once or twice he’d done worse, which is why she was careful to keep the bar between them most of the time. He wasn’t tall enough to reach her all the way across the bar, but she knew he had it in him to hit her hard.

Twice when she had pushed him over the limit—which she did mainly to find out what his limit was—he had hit with his closed fist and knocked her sprawling. It took talent to make Wyatt lose his temper, but Jessie knew just how to do it, and did it mainly just to have something happening. Pouring whiskey from bottle to glass was boring work. Needling Wyatt was the way to start something; or would have been if Wyatt ever took the trouble to make up with her. Then she might have taken him in hand and gotten him active, but only if she was quick to take him in hand; otherwise he’d go to another saloon and get drunk—after which she might not see him for days.

Wyatt had a big reputation as a gunfighter, which puzzled Jessie, because as far as she knew he had never actually killed anybody. When she asked him about it he said that he had never needed to, and perhaps never would.

But Jessie had no doubt that Wyatt would kill somebody, someday, for something or for nothing. There was something hard in Wyatt that wasn’t in his brother Morgan or his brother Virgil, though they were actually lawmen for real, Morgan usually a sheriff and Virg usually a deputy. But whoever was the official marshal, Wyatt was the real law, even though he had never officially been hired, much less elected.

“Vote for Wyatt, no,” Doc said, when Jessie pinned him down about the matter. “Only a fool would vote for Wyatt.”

“But they’d vote for you, wouldn’t they?” she asked. Jessie liked Doc, although she knew he was rarely sober.

“If I cared to charm them, yes,” Doc said. “But there’s no place I’d care to be elected at, so it’s back to the cards. Wyatt thinks I’m the best poker player in America. Jessie, what do you think?”

Jessie liked to keep Doc talking, in case he might accidentally touch her or something, and if they ever accidentally touched in the right place, then he’d be hers, Wyatt or no Wyatt.

“You ain’t afraid of Wyatt, are you, Doc?” Jessie asked.

“Jessie, I don’t give enough of a damn to be afraid of anything,” Doc said, and he looked as if he might know what she was thinking.

Then he laughed.

“Women, women, women,” he said. “Why are you thinking of doing the one thing that might make Wyatt Earp kill you?”

“To see if he’s alive,” she said.

“To see if he cares.”

“And you can’t figure that out without risking gunplay?”

“I haven’t so far,” Jessie said.

“When I try to talk to Wyatt he just walks out and the next thing I know he’s down the street, drunk, with that little shotgun of his.”

“It’s his weapon of choice,” Doc said. “It’s ideal for whacking noisy cowboys in the noggin so they can be drug off to jail. Wyatt usually does the whacking and leaves the dragging for Virgil.”

“You’re not being a lot of help, you know,” Jessie said. But Doc just sat there staring into space until Jessie thought to hell with it and walked away.

.5.

“I was raised by the eunuchs,” San Saba said. “There were fifty in the seraglio, Mr. Goodnight.”

The two of them were watching Lord Ernle enjoying a footbath.

“Very important to keep the feet clean,” he went on. “Many infectious evils come in through the soles of the feet.”

“Fifty eunuchs?” Goodnight said; the morning was rich in surprises.

“My mother was the Rose Concubine, which was a very high position in the harem. But one day she refused the sultan, which was not done.”

Goodnight waited.

“He had her blinded, sewn in a sack, and thrown off a cliff into the Bosphorus. I was kept a virgin until the sultan got around to me. Fortunately Benny showed up and bought me.”

“Rather filthy specimen, that sultan,” Lord Ernle said. “Hamid something. I couldn’t see wasting such beauty on Orientals. But that’s a long story and I think Charlie and I ought to be thinking about our announcement.”

“Okay,” Goodnight said. “There’s a newspaperman wandering around here already and there’ll soon be a passel more. I’m sure Nellie Courtright will soon be along—she runs the telegraph in Rita Blanca, which ain’t far—at least not as the crow flies.”

He was trying to learn a new virtue: patience. He was known all over the West for exactly the opposite quality: impatience; and, in his impatience, he was known to be exceedingly profane—and loud to boot. His own wife, Mary Goodnight, had threatened to leave him twice because of the cussing, although in neither case was it her he was cussing.

Though impatient, Goodnight wasn’t daft. He had met Lord Ernle in Chicago, where an effort was made, although a feeble one, to form a stockmen’s association, and he liked Lord Benny Ernle immediately, while recognizing that he wasn’t an ordinary partner. He was the tallest man in England, and also the richest: one of his many country houses, he told Goodnight, required thirty-eight gardeners.

“Weeds, I suppose,” Goodnight said, but Lord Ernle didn’t hear him. He was left to wonder what thirty-eight gardeners did. Though he had known Lord Ernle only a few months he realized that he would be wasting his time trying to understand English ways; maybe his wife would have better luck when they met up, as they would soon.

“What’s the word on my house? San Saba and I are looking forward to moving in soon,” Lord Ernle said.

Even before the partnership with Goodnight had fully evolved, Lord Ernle had made himself a legend in the West by ordering the construction of a vast castle on a bluff overlooking the Canadian River. Miles of train track had been laid just to bring workmen and equipment to the castle site. Though still a vast shell, travelers who happened on it were left speechless by the scale. Even Mary Goodnight had been struck speechless, a rare occurrence in Charlie’s experience.

“I fear I had no time for architecture,” Goodnight said. “But I did bring up about fifteen hundred yearlings for us to put in play.”

“Not to worry, Mr. Goodnight,” San Saba said. “We left a foreman there to see that construction is moving along. I even have photographs. There’s a lot to do yet but it’ll get done in time.”

“I rarely do worry,” Goodnight said, while wondering exactly what role San Saba—once maybe the most beautiful woman in Asia, now no longer in Asia—would have in this hastily evolved partnership. Though gossiped about endlessly in the cow country, not much was actually known about her. She called Lord Ernle Benny, but what did that mean? There was said to be measuring of penises at the Orchid, but was it true and if so what did that mean?

“What about the savages, Charlie?” Lord Ernle inquired.

“All subdued, I trust?” Goodnight shook his head.

“The Comanches are through—they’ve accepted reservation life,” he said. “With the Kiowa it’s a shakier situation. There are twenty or thirty renegades who keep breaking loose and causing trouble.”

“Why not raise a private militia and go wipe the devils out?” Lord Ernle said. “I’m sure there are plenty of fine killers for hire in these parts.”

“Yes, but most of them are worse than the Kiowa,” Goodnight said.

“The Texas Rangers are trying to corral them, but they’re sly rascals,” Goodnight said. “There are lots of pistoleros we could get but they are a mixed blessing, Ben.”

“Will Mrs. Goodnight be visiting us at the castle?” San Saba asked. “I’m anxious to meet her.”

“She’ll show up, I can’t say when,” Goodnight said, remembering a sharp little exchange he had with his wife as he was leaving to gather the herd. He had suggested that they live in a tent for a while, until he could build them a house of their own.

“You want me to live in a tent?” Mary said, with an unfriendly cast to her expression. “Your partner and his concubine live in a fine mansion while I live in a tent? How is that fair, Charlie?” “I doubt she’s his concubine,” he said. “And I’ll get us a house started as soon as I get the money from this cattle sale.” “I didn’t learn algebra just to live in a tent,” Mary said—a remark that puzzled him a good deal, since Mary had never so far burst into algebra. Where did she learn it, and why?

The question was amenable to no immediate answer, since Mary Goodnight turned and walked away.


Excerpted from The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry. Copyright © 2014 by Larry McMurtry.
First published 2014 by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company Inc., New York. First published in Great Britain 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 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.