Death came stealthily on a tranquil summer’s afternoon with a step so light and a smile so familiar she failed to recognise the danger even when she saw it face to face. She was making peach jam in the low, cool kitchen, with the door open to allow the breeze to circulate and the radio murmuring fifties dance music from the centre of the scrubbed pine table. Soft music, sweet and evocative, to which she tapped along with her bare foot, all the time stirring the thickening syrup with a wooden spoon, in tune with the hot, still afternoon and the heavy aroma from the huge black cauldron on the stove.
`Hi, sweetie!’ she called when she heard the first soft footfall. `Back so soon? How was the game? Aren’t you sweltering? Will I open you a beer?’
Then: `Oh, it’s you. I thought it was your dad. If you want to make yourself useful, start topping and tailing those beans. And fetch me a soda from the cooler will you, hon?’
She smiled contentedly and went on stirring. Life in this lazy backwater was not so bad after all, not at moments of pure pleasure such as this. Quality food, fresh air, the basic comforts of home and family she had once so much despised. All she could ever want, in fact, contained between these four stone walls amidst scenery so dramatic it could knock the breath right out of you.
The brick found its mark with a force that did just that, and as she staggered and reached for the rail of the stove, she gazed up through a bewildering haze of streaming blood and watched it fall again. Watched in disbelief as it swung towards her, wrapped innocuously, she now saw, in one of her own expensive stockings, culled in stealth from her drawer.
She lay on the cool stone floor and gazed up at the stove, at the black iron cauldron, so heavy she could scarcely lift it, bubbling above her head. When she saw it topple towards her she knew she was going to die, but by then it was too late.
Mornings like this, thought Beth, made living in Central London totally justifiable. Church bells ringing from across the road, the pervasive aroma of spring lamb spiked with rosemary wafting from the Aga, the kitchen door propped open on this fine May morning to let in the scent of honeysuckle and the occasional buzz of a lazy bee. She spread tiny new potatoes in a single layer across a cast-iron pan and deftly drizzled them with olive oil. From here you could scarcely hear the dull thunder of traffic and if you looked out of the window, as she did now on her way to the stove, all you could see through a trellis of green willow was the sloping lawn, a white wicket gate and the curve of gravel which fronted the church. Just like living in a cathedral close, she was fond of saying, and had had her good friend Richard Brooke immortalise the view in one of his stylish watercolours, now hanging on the panelled wall in the hall. Visitors to the house never failed to comment on it.
`Surely that can’t be an original,’ they would say, peering at the minute signature. But it was and Beth was proud of it, proud too of the gamble she had taken all those years ago when Richard was still a starving student and she had risked a month’s rent money in order to help him out of a jam by backing her conviction that he had real talent, talent that would last. Creative people, she was fond of saying, should back each other, and what was the point of money if you couldn’t use it to help a friend? Beth thought for a moment of her own circumstances and how Pop had come up trumps just when she had needed it most. What goes around comes around. Certainly she could not have been more right about Richard, and she hadn’t heard many complaints from Pop either in these last few hectic years.
She opened the fridge and poured herself a glass of chilled Chardonnay. There were moments when life seemed pretty near perfect, and this was one of them.
`Mum,’ said Imogen from the sofa, sprawled like a young gazelle in a welter of Sunday papers, `it says here Dad may be coming home.’
She looked up through the straggly fringe that badly needed trimming and pointed to a paragraph in the Mail on Sunday. At twelve, Imogen was growing fast and was already almost as tall as her mother (though Beth had never been so slender) with long, coltish legs. Beth wiped her hands on her bleached cotton apron and crossed the room to take a look at the paper. After three years of being a smash hit, it seemed the American musical Autumn Crocus was transferring to London in the autumn with its distinguished choreographer/director, Gus Hardy, and full Broadway cast.
`Brilliant!’ said Imogen, cheeks flushed, dark eyes alight with happiness. `Will he come and live here? There’s tons of room. Shall I call him now and ask him?’
She was on her feet and heading towards the phone before her mother could stop her.
`Hang on a sec! Leave it for a while,’ Beth said, rolling the tiny potatoes expertly around in the oil and dusting them with pepper and fresh coriander. `We’ll talk about it later. You never know with Dad, he may well have made other arrangements. After all, there’s the whole company to think of and it isn’t as if it’s just for a week or two. Besides,’ she added as an afterthought, `it’s early in the morning in New York, and you know your dad. He won’t thank you if you wake him this early, not after one of his legendary Saturday nights.’
She topped up her glass and sliced courgettes briskly into a colander. Beth ran a catering business and had three weddings and a charity ball to cook for. Life was complicated enough as it was without Gus Hardy reappearing on the scene.
`Just what I need,’ she said to Jane later, spread out on the sofa in a post-prandial slump after Imogen had disappeared on her rollerblades to join up with friends down the road. `They say it never rains but it pours. Oliver gets back from Johannesburg on Thursday, and now this, the return of the prodigal for God knows how long.’
Jane laughed. As Beth’s best friend, she was used to her hectic personal life.
`You can cope, you’ve done it before. Besides, you thrive on friction. And it won’t do Oliver any harm either to have a bit of competition.’ She disapproved of Oliver. Most of Beth’s friends did.
`Yes, but what am I going to do if Imogen insists on having him stay here? You know what she’s like once she sets her heart on something. And the truth is, we do have the space.’
`I wouldn’t worry. Gus will have his own ideas, and can you really see him wanting to play Happy Families again? But it will be nice for Imogen to be able to see a bit more of him. Kids need their dads. And it ought to give you a bit more breathing space, too.’
`For you. There’s more to life than wasting it all on a selfish man.’
Beth laughed. She had heard this tune many times before but, as she never stopped reminding her, Jane had Alastair, as well as a demanding career.
`Well, we’ll see. Now I suppose I’d better do those damned dishes. I’ve got a dinner for twelve tomorrow night and the smoked salmon mousse still to prepare.’
When the pain came, it caught Beth unawares, as she was lifting a heavy tray of delicate choux pastry cases from the oven. She gasped and managed to set them down without dropping them all over the floor. She clasped her stomach and cold sweat broke out on her forehead. Damn it to hell! Why did it always happen on occasions like this, when she was already up to her ears with no time even to sit down? Deirdre, chopping parsley, looked up and frowned.
`You really ought to see someone about that. Doesn’t do to ignore health warnings, and how would the rest of us cope if you were really ill?’ – Selfish cow, there she went again. Dear though she was, Deirdre could be a right pain. But after seven years of her relentless pessimism, Beth was well used to it and even found herself missing it on the rare occasions Deirdre wasn’t around. She was like some sort of wretched albatross, hung around Beth’s neck to ensure she didn’t have too good a time. Beth stood upright and smiled bravely.
`Don’t worry, probably just wind.’
`Sounds like your innards to me. You most likely need a hysterectomy.’ Deirdre, with her four raucous children and scream-makingly monotonous existence, could always be counted on to put in a hefty boot.
`Thanks a bunch,’ Beth shot back. `I’m not that old!’
`Look what happened to my sister,’ said Deirdre dourly, shuffling the neatly chopped parsley into a tidy pile and reaching for another bunch.
`With respect, your sister was at least ten years older than me, and there’s a history of it in your family. I’m not about to pop off yet.’
Beth was already feeling better. It was nothing more than her ovaries giving her an early warning. Her period must be due around now. It was all totally unfair; when God created woman he might have given her a more effective reproductive system. She poured a glass of mineral water and downed two Neurofen. No need to worry, she was ridiculously healthy and always had been. Luckily Imogen seemed to have inherited her genes, too. She was not going to let an old misery-guts like Deirdre scare her.
She slammed another tray of pastry cases into the Aga and forgot all about it.
Beth was right about Gus. He called later in the week and confirmed that the newspaper report was true. Things were going so well he was taking a gamble and putting in a subsidiary cast for the show while he brought the original stars to London.
`Jesus, but I hope it works. Marla’s already having the vapours because she hates to travel, and Vic’s agent’s been on the blower, muttering about a revised contract and the extra emotional strain of having to modify his accent for British audiences.’
He sounded buoyant and breathless with excitement. Gus was nearly always on a high. That was one of the attractive things about him. Some people found it exhausting but Beth had always been invigorated by his energy. Just talking to him made her feel better; she hung up the phone in a happier mood. A little of Gus went a very long way but having him around recharged her batteries like nothing else could. And he wasn’t planning to invade her privacy, she had been almost sure of that. Although they remained good friends all these years after the divorce, they had always respected each other’s space. Gus had arranged to move back into his own house in Islington because, fortuitously, his tenant had an operatic tour of Australia planned for the same time as his visit.
It would be great for Imogen, who idolised her father. One of Beth’s main areas of guilt, in fact, was the absence of Gus from her daughter’s young life. She needed her talented, exuberant dad with whom she always had so much fun. Gus had his faults but he was an excellent father. In a fair world he would have had loads of children. But they had both made new lives for themselves and were happy. Moreover, they shared Imogen, a spirited and delightful child who seemed to have suffered little harm from the early separation. Still, a son would have been nice for Gus; a son he could take sailing and tutor in the rudiments of football and cricket – or, more likely, the way things had turned out, baseball.
Oliver edged the dark blue Mercedes into a space outside the white wicket gate and Beth, still damp from the bath, stood at the upstairs window and watched him. Some girlish instinct, relict perhaps of her Nottinghamshire past, still gave her a thrill when in the presence of serious money. Although her socialist principles would have made her hotly deny it to most of her acquaintances, sneakily, deep down inside, she had to admit she found style and class a definite turn-on. She watched now as Oliver slid from the driver’s seat, glanced each way to check that his beloved car was suitably parked, then ran a manicured hand over his immaculate hair. That was another thing about Oliver. No matter what he might be doing, he was always well turned out, with never a hair out of place or a torn cuticle, or even a razor cut on his stern, handsome face. Beth watched him reach into the back for the arrangement of pewter roses that had become a tradition between them. He locked the car, and only then did he look up, directly at where she was standing. Beth backed away guiltily behind the gauzy curtain, still embarrassed after all these months, to be caught peeping.
She wrapped the apple-green silk kimono more tightly around her generous figure – there was not a lot of point in getting dressed – ran a brush through her short, curly hair and raced down the wooden staircase to fling open the door and hurl herself into his arms. This was always the best part, the coming together again after yet another of their frequent separations. She laid her head against his lavender shirt front and breathed in the erotic mix of Trumpers lime aftershave and expensive starched cotton. Oliver brushed the hair back from her forehead as he kicked the door shut with one foot and tossed the roses on to the shabby sofa. He planted a kiss on her nose then another, more seriously, on her unpainted mouth. His eyes roved around the room.
`Alice’s. For the night.’
She snuggled her head into his neck and let him guide her to the sofa to scrunch down next to the roses.
Two years ago, when Beth first set eyes on Oliver, it was love at first sight – or at least lust, which was usually the case and more or less the same thing with Beth. She was for ever making fresh resolutions to put her head before her heart and try to assess a man’s character, solid worth and kindness to defenceless beings before noticing the slant of his cheekbone or the neatness of his bum, but all to no avail. She was not at all sure how she managed to achieve it, she who had never been as slim as she would have liked and was far from happy with her nose, but Beth had managed from a very early age to surround herself with very toothsome men. Gus Hardy was one of the most beautiful beings in God’s creation, very nearly the whole world was agreed upon that, but Oliver Nugent, with his stronger jaw and slightly satanic good looks, ran him a pretty close second.
It was in the private dining room of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, how would she ever forget, and Beth was fussing over the table arrangement – straightening the pure linen napkins, arranging dark mints in perfect arcs and worrying in case her inspired menu of raviolis de ris de veau aux truffes followed by a ragout of scallops and oysters, instead of the more cautious melon and parma ham followed by lamb cutlets, might prove too revolutionary for the suits and end her career in the City just as it was getting underway – when in he walked. He stood in the doorway looking for his host and crossed the room to shake the outstretched hand without a further glance, just as if she really were the housekeeper instead of London’s latest rage in chic nouvelle cuisine, hired for the morning at exorbitant cost.
That was one aspect of the job that still rankled slightly, however hard Beth tried to control it. The actress in her hated not being in the limelight, particularly when she had laboured so hard and so long to achieve the perfection she was about to set before them.
Oliver stood talking by the panoramic window and, by moving round the table, then round again, Beth was able to keep him in her sights without making it obvious. One of the pluses of her job was that she seemed to cater for a lot of men-only lunches, the idea being that the boys could concentrate better on the business under discussion without any of the tiresome interruptions that mixed company imposed. Oliver was talking to three other City gentlemen and looking very grave indeed. When Beth got to know him better she discovered this was one of his two basic expressions.
She ran her eye over him as lingeringly as if he were a prime cut of Aberdeen Angus beef, and liked increasingly what she saw. Tall enough – at five ten and a half, height could be a problem for Beth, – fit without being jocklike and, best of all, unselfconsciously well groomed as if it happened accidentally and did not involve one iota of vanity. Vanity was something she could not abide in a man; with her theatrical background, she had had enough of it to last a lifetime or two.
His voice too, she discovered, was cultured and modulated, as finely tuned as everything else about him. This, in short, was one class act. Beth wanted to know more and was frustrated when the course was served and she had to withdraw, silently and with metaphorically downcast eyes, behind the green baize door.
Just when she had given up hope Oliver redeemed himself; extraordinarily and so out of character, she was sure, that her heart leapt into her mouth and she sensed, against all the odds, that she had him on her line, however tentatively. She saw him leave, hurriedly, with his eyes on his gold Rolex, while the others were still cradling their brandy snifters and the perfume of Havana was sweet on the air, and returned silently cursing to her borrowed kitchen, sick that she hadn’t even found out his name or managed to engage him in direct eye contact.
And then, miracle of miracles, the door from the corridor had swung inwards and there he was again, this time looking for her. To shake her briefly by the hand, again with that slightly distracted expression she had since learned to love, congratulate her (genuinely, she was sure) on the meal and ask if she carried a card in case he could throw some business her way. This might have been construed as patronising but Beth didn’t see it that way. She saw only the slate-grey eyes and chiselled lips and the level stare that turned her stomach to blancmange and gave her heart palpitations she had not experienced since she first saw Springsteen performing live. She wandered home in a lust-ridden trance and spent the rest of the afternoon on the bed, listening to Streisand and thinking it must surely by now be her turn again to have a break.
It took him two weeks but he did eventually ring, and when the call came through she was up to her armpits in lamb Marrakesh and hadn’t a clue who he was. She was very nearly quite rude to him - the chef’s prerogative - but caught on just in time, smiled sweetly (over the phone) and agreed to meet him for a drink the following night at seven.
And that was where it really all began. Chemistry did the rest. Oliver was already waiting when Beth swanned in, a sophisticated twelve and a half minutes late, in a corner booth with chilled Krug in a silver cooler, his inscrutable eyes watching the door as if it really mattered whether or not she showed. She didn’t actually like champagne, preferred a single malt or even Scotch, but now was not the time to tell him. The thought was charming and, positively seductive. Beth hadn’t wanted to appear too eager so had settled for a black suede wraparound skirt with a plain silk shirt and, in her ears, the gold hoops Gus had bought her once for an anniversary present.
She had forgotten the firmness of his handshake and the way his black hair swung down from his widow’s peak over one eye. Forgotten, too, the maleness of the man and his smell: macho, expensive, almost feral. Ninety-three minutes later, the drink was over, and Beth rose from the table as Oliver politely held back her chair. Her knees had turned to putty and she was suffering a severe attack of love. She had also agreed to spend a weekend with him in Strasbourg.
So here they now were, two and a half years later, wrapped in each other’s arms and each other’s souls, two halves of one being, ecstatically happy, replete, content just to lie silently amongst the welter of Beth’s Victorian lace pillows, hips touching, hands entwined, one of Oliver’s legs thrown possessively over one of hers, a gentle breeze fluttering through the Bruges lace curtains and cooling the satisfying film of sweat on both their bodies.
Soon, all too soon, he would stir, glance at his watch, mumble an expletive, leap from the bed and into the shower, calling out his regrets through the power of the water. For the moment, he was serene and hers completely. Sometimes there was the phone call, elegantly done, downstairs in the living room so that she could not overhear, the door partially closed to protect her sensibility. Then the rapid departure, the thrown kiss in the doorway, the promise to call as soon as the meetings in Geneva were concluded, followed by the quickening crunch of tyres as the sleek Mercedes streaked away, back to The Boltons, back to his real life. All in all, not too bad an existence, especially when compared with other women’s lives, and rather on a par with her profession of paid cook. Once again, it was not left to her to clean up the mess. And at least he didn’t carry one of those vulgar portable phones.
Of course there was a wife, one he rarely mentioned and then only in the most indirect of terms but, as Beth often pointed out to Jane, when was there not? Considering the other things Beth had endured in her thirty-something years, married was not too bad at all, certainly liveable with. At least it meant Oliver had a healthy appetite for the finer things which, as far as Beth was concerned, were headed by an enthusiastic sex life.
`Give me a three-times-a-nighter,’ she would often say to Jane, `and I’ll show you a contented woman.’
As the downstairs clock chimed eleven and Beth lay in a state of pure tranquillised pleasure, Oliver stirred and ran through the familiar routine, only without the phone call.
`Must go, sweetheart.’
`Things to do. Early start.’ Already he was off the bed and pulling on his socks. Silk, she noticed, monogrammed. Bought by Her.
`Off so soon?’ She stretched luxuriantly, revelling in the cool breeze on her skin, voluptuous and, for once, confident of her own considerable pulling power. She reached out a strong brown arm and drew him close.
`Stay, can’t you?’ she murmured. `Just this once? Imogen’s not here. And boy, have I got things I want to do to you.’
He smiled and backed away, knotting his tie (matching, she noticed), and smoothed the perfect hair into place. As he shrugged into the Savile Row jacket, his mind had already left her. He slipped the pigskin wallet into his inside pocket and palmed the keys. And then, unforgivably, he glanced at his watch.
`Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out. I’ll call you.’
And was gone, running lightly down the wooden stairs and closing the front door with a discreet click. Seconds later she heard the powerful engine surge but could not, this time, be bothered to leave the bed to take up her usual standpoint.
`Fuck,’ said Beth, switching off the lamp.
© Carol Smith 2003