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Authors: Patricia Fawcett

Tags: #Chick-Lit, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Marriage, #Relationships, #Sagas, #Women's Fiction

A Close Connection

BOOK: A Close Connection
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A CLOSE CONNECTION

PATRICIA FAWCETT

To Chris at Buckland. With thanks for the first idea.

T
HE TAXI
– or the luxury limousine as she preferred to think of it – was late. It had not been a good start to the day because Eleanor Nightingale could not get her suitcase zipped up, but even though it meant discarding that pair of high-heeled shoes that would have gone beautifully with her blue dress, it was finally done and the suitcase was sitting in the hall together with the others.

‘Why did you leave it to the last minute?’ her husband Henry asked as, ready now for the off, they hung about, glancing at their watches as the minutes ticked by. ‘You’ve had enough practice at packing. You should have it off to a fine art by now.’

‘Where is this driver? Five more minutes and I shall ring that office and give them what for.’ Eleanor gave her husband an irritated look. ‘You know nothing about packing at all. There’s always something you have to put in at the very last minute. Anyway, this time it’s different and I’ve not been able to concentrate properly. This time Paula and Alan are coming with us.’

‘I don’t see what difference that makes. It’s your fault they’re coming. There was no need for it. We don’t have to be joined at the hip just because their son married our daughter.’

‘Don’t start on that again.’

‘It’s true. We haven’t a thing in common apart from that and I warn you it’s not going to be easy. I don’t know what the hell you and Paula will find to talk about unless it’s reality television. She seems to be an authority on that.’

‘Don’t be mean. We’ll find something.’ She smiled a little. ‘Same for you, I suppose. What will you talk about with Alan?’

‘God only knows but then we men don’t talk like you ladies do.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘You know exactly what I mean. We don’t go all emotional and start blubbing at the drop of a hat.’

‘I don’t blub.’

‘You don’t but Paula always looks as if she’s on the brink. Haven’t you noticed? I just hope it doesn’t spoil the holiday, that’s all, and for Christ’s sake don’t keep rubbing their noses in it that we have a hell of a lot more than they have. It’s embarrassing.’

‘As if I would do something like that.’ Eleanor clicked her tongue. ‘You know me better than that. I wouldn’t dream of upsetting Paula. She’s such a sweetheart.’

‘Wouldn’t you?’ He eyed her with suspicion. ‘Let’s get one thing clear, my darling. Don’t expect me to pay for everything. Let Alan dip into his pocket because that’s what he will want to do. Give the guy some credit. I know they wanted to chip in with the wedding costs but you said no.’

‘I made a decision I knew you wouldn’t disagree with.’

‘It would have been nice to be asked.’

‘Don’t be so touchy and you know you don’t like to be bothered with trivialities.’ She glanced once more at her watch. She hated being late for anything. She had arrived in this world three weeks early and that pretty much set the standard thereafter. ‘It’s a well-known fact that the bride’s parents pay for their daughter’s wedding especially if it is their precious
only
daughter. It would have looked mean beyond belief if we had accepted the Walkers’ offer. You know it was only a token offer. They never expected us to accept it in a million years.’

‘I don’t know about that. Times have changed.’

‘What would you know about it?’

‘Not much, I grant you, but I read somewhere that because couples normally live together beforehand they usually fork out for it themselves these days.’

‘I can’t think where you read that and may I remind you that Nicola and Matthew did not live together, strange as it might seem. I think it was so refreshing of them to wait until they were married before they set up home together.’

‘I have a bad feeling about all this, this bloody holiday. And I don’t feel that great either.’ He rubbed ruefully at his stomach.

‘We should have eaten.’ Eleanor sighed. She rarely ate breakfast but Henry had eaten nothing either this morning, not able to face anything at this hour, and perhaps it was this that was making him irritable. He liked his food, did Henry, but he never gained an ounce. Luckily nor did she although she was considerably more careful about her diet.

‘I just hope we get through this fortnight without a major row,’ he went on, causing her to frown with exasperation. What was the matter with him this morning? He was in a singularly bad mood.

Minutes were ticking by and where on earth was this driver? They had used this company before, frequently, and they were usually so reliable. She hoped they were not becoming complacent, because there was more than one high-end taxi firm in the area and she did not feel a particular loyalty to this one.

‘Why should there be a major row?’ she asked, Henry’s words prodding at her. ‘You are such a pessimist. The Walkers are not like you, always flying off at the deep end for the slightest thing.’

‘It’s living with you that does it.’ He grinned in that attractive way of his and against her better judgement she managed a small smile. ‘You’d drive anybody bonkers, my darling. Being married to a practically perfect woman is very wearing.’

She ignored that. ‘There won’t be any rows. Paula is quite a timid sort and Alan is much more laid back. I’ve never heard him swear either so do try to moderate your language and not curse all over the place. I suppose he has to keep calm in his job. It wouldn’t do if he got into a panic, would it?’

Henry grunted but said nothing.

For a moment she thought of Alan, a quiet thoughtful man whom she would like to get to know better. Of the two of them, Paula and Alan, she much preferred Alan but then she had never considered herself to be a woman’s woman. She was much more at home with the men. Her darling son-in-law Matthew favoured his father in looks and temperament. ‘The four of us are going to have a lovely time and there is so much I want to show Paula. Italy will be a completely new experience for her and she will love it. I can’t believe she’s never been to Europe.’

‘All right.’ He raised his hands in mock surrender. ‘On your head be it.’

The bickering was nothing new but the taxi drew to a halt outside just then. It was too early in the day for an argument so she let it go, slinging her madly expensive handbag over her shoulder and leaving him and the driver to stuff the suitcases in the boot. Even though it would be quiet at this time of day, it would take some considerable time to get to the airport at Bristol and they needed to get going.

‘You are very nearly fifteen minutes late,’ she told the driver as she climbed in, shooting a glance at Henry that said clearly that on no account was he to tip him with his usual extravagance. He was not the normal driver which was just as well because the normal one was getting much too familiar.

‘Sorry, my lovely,’ the driver said, seemingly unperturbed but nevertheless setting off down the winding drive of their house at a fair speed, giving Eleanor no time for a last fond look at the house she loved, the house she would not be seeing for two whole weeks. ‘Don’t you fret. I’ll get you there in time,’ he said cheerfully, pausing before he exited the gates onto the lane.

‘You’d better,’ she retorted with a sniff. The familiarity of the ‘my lovely’ offended her but that was the Cornish for you and she had grown used to it. This part of the world seemed to operate on a different timescale and although the leisurely pace was quaint sometimes, it could be a huge irritation too.

‘I feel a bit mean. We could have picked the Walkers up,’ Henry muttered for her ears only, as they headed for the main road. ‘It isn’t much out of the way.’

‘It’s a lot out of the way,’ she said. ‘I hate the route over the Tamar Bridge and Paula was fine about it. In fact she insisted that they didn’t want picking up.’

‘She would say that. She hates to make a fuss. Haven’t you noticed that either?’

‘She seems to have made quite an impression on you.’

‘I can sum people up pretty quickly. I got the measure of our Paula straight off. You’re not jealous, are you?’

‘Of Paula?’ She laughed because she had also summed up the lady in question pretty quickly. She always went with her first impression for it usually proved to be right. A little lady, class-conscious and awkward, that was Paula. ‘Why on earth would I be jealous of Paula?’

‘How are they getting to the airport?’

‘They are getting a lift from Eddie.’

‘Who the hell is he?’

‘A friend of Alan’s. He’s ex-navy.’

‘Everybody’s ex-navy in Plymouth.’

‘Alan isn’t.’

Eleanor adjusted her seatbelt, hoping they got there in time for a leisurely check-in because they were cutting it fine. She hoped to goodness that Paula and Alan were not there before them because they were not used to airports and they might start panicking, or at least Paula would. Paula was the queen of panic. She recalled the first time the Walkers had visited their house and the startled look on Paula’s face.

Their house was situated halfway between the old Cornish capital of Launceston and the charming coastal resort of Bude and it was grand of course but it was not that grand, not by country-house standards – modest in fact – although she supposed in Paula’s eyes it was practically in the stately-home category. To add to that perception, the day they visited would be when the gardener was out in the garden and the cleaner was pottering about indoors. Employing staff had very nearly caused Paula’s eyes to pop out of their sockets.

‘Sorry but it’s the butler’s day off,’ Henry had joked, seeing the woman’s face, and Paula had nodded earnestly, not getting the joke, until Alan laughed. Paula blushed then very nearly to the roots of her blonde hair, and Eleanor knew at that point that it was a waste of time, that she and Paula would never become true friends; the gap, that important social gap, was just too wide. It was a pity because she was short on proper friends, true friends, ladies on whom she could unload some of her problems and in turn listen sympathetically to theirs. She had loads of acquaintances and colleagues on the various committees of the various charitable organizations that she was part of, but no real friends. There was nobody she really trusted.

Why on earth had she done this? Why was she paying for this holiday for Nicola’s in-laws? Sometimes she was surprised by her own generosity although it did no harm to be seen to be generous. She regretted the invitation as soon as she uttered it but even though Paula had seemed taken aback she said yes straightaway, although Eleanor could imagine the conversation
she had with Alan once she got home. He was a proud man and he must have taken some persuading to agree to it.

‘I think you are making a big mistake. Paula and Alan don’t expect to be bosom friends with you,’ her daughter had said, echoing what Henry was saying. ‘I don’t mean you should be enemies but it might be best to keep a distance. And to be honest, Mum, they’ll just feel uncomfortable being on holiday with you. They’re not like Matthew. You know him, he is so confident and he feels at home with anybody but they will just feel out of their depth on your sort of holiday. It’s not fair to inflict it on them.’

Eleanor laughed at that. ‘Inflict? I’m giving them a freebie, darling, and it isn’t as if this is one of our special long-haul trips. It’s relatively inexpensive. We can relax on holiday and it’s time we got to know each other a bit more.’

‘I don’t see why. It will only lead to trouble and poor Paula will have to spend a fortune on clothes to keep up with you. She can’t afford to spend a couple of hundred on a dress just because it takes her fancy and then stick it in the wardrobe and never ever wear it.’

‘We all make wardrobe mistakes, darling. Even you. You are such a snob.’ It surprised Eleanor that Nicola dismissed her in-laws in this way. They might be a little lower on the social ladder, certainly not the sort of people she normally associated with, but they were Matthew’s parents and she liked Matthew very much and she wanted to get to know his parents, particularly his mother, a little more. After all, they had produced this marvellous son who was making her daughter so happy so there had to be something about them. Also, in due course, they would be grandparents together and it would be lovely if the new member of the family, even if he would be a Walker, was welcomed by both sets although, as she was Nicola’s mother, she saw that she would have to take the upper hand as, being the maternal grandmother, she would take precedence.

Nicola and Matthew’s house, the one they moved into after the wedding, was a disappointing choice; just a small, rather run-down cottage and she hoped that by the time a child arrived they would move to something more substantial, more in keeping with their position. By that time, Matthew could maybe think of starting up his own architectural practice specializing as he did in listed buildings and barn conversions which were prolific in the area, and he could do that from somewhere more central like Truro or maybe work from home which was much more feasible these days. He would do well in business because he was not short on confidence nor on charm and that was what endeared him to her, for she really could not be bothered with ditherers and dawdlers.

Henry dozed off on the journey to the airport but then they had been up much earlier than usual and he was not a morning person at the best of times. Henry had to ease himself into the day. At one time that involved a lot of cigarettes and coffee but thankfully he had given up the cigarettes.

In his mid-fifties now, he was aging rather well and looked handsome even when he was sleeping; such a strong face, a powerful man both in frame and personality. Henry Nightingale was the sort of man who lit up a room and it was small wonder that he was successful in business because he looked dependable, confident and self-assured, the sort of man you could trust, and it was the power that he wielded even when younger that had attracted her to him. Looking back, she was very young when they met, barely twenty-four, but according to her mother, time was already passing her by and she was in danger of leaving it a little late.

‘Before you know it, you will be thirty,’ that lady said. ‘And all the best ones will have been snapped up and you will be left with the dregs.’

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