Last Guests of the Season

BOOK: Last Guests of the Season
4.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
hidden talent rediscovered

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Sue Gee
Last Guests of the Season
Sue Gee

Sue Gee is an acclaimed and established novelist.
Reading in Bed
(2007) was a
Daily Mail
Book Club selection;
The Mysteries of Glass
(2005) was long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She ran the MBA Creative Writing Programme at Middlesex University from 2000–2008 and currently teaches at the Faber Academy. Sue Gee has also published many short stories, some of which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and her most recent publication is a collection of stories,
Last Fling
(Salt 2011). She lives in London and Herefordshire.

Chapter One

In the afternoon heat the peeling blue shutters in the bedroom at the back of the house had been swung to, their backs the colour of dark honey, unvarnished, smooth. The metal bar hung down: the shutters were not quite closed and sunlight came through the chinks at the hinges and at the gap in the middle, falling upon wooden floor and worn blue armchair, on the cotton dressing-gown slipping off the arm and canvas shoes kicked off on to the floorboards. A fly, which had found its way through the gap, was trying now to find its way out again; it buzzed from lampshade to shutter to the shadowy mirror on the wardrobe door.

Outside, a haze hung over the valley, the dark shapes of the pines on the mountainside softened and indistinct, grey-green clumps of eucalyptus dissolving into blue, the winding river pale as the bleached sky. Above the clusters of terracotta rooftops the air shimmered; above the village the church bell chimed twice, but this indicated simply the passing of an hour, not a specific hour: it sometimes chimed twice at midnight, three or four times at noon.

Below, the village slumbered, and here, in their double bed pushed up against the wall, Frances and Oliver Swift, who had risen in London just after daybreak, slept also, lying separately against their pillows, dreaming: she small, pale, exhausted; he a big man, dark, turned away from her, facing the bedside table, a neat pile of books, a pair of glasses. Frances and Oliver, dreaming deeply, and quite differently, did not hear the chime of the church clock on the hillside, nor the buzz of the fly, nor the sound of a door opening along the corridor. They did not hear the bare feet of their son on the rag runner, nor the hiss of a steam iron on the landing, where Guida, the little maid, stood in her flip-flops and denim skirt, pressing good white sheets with drawn-thread hems.

It was warm on the landing, where the window opened on to a peach tree. Dappled squares of brilliant sun fell from the window on to the carpet, a faded green. Guida rested the steam iron for a moment and pushed back her hair; she turned the long white train of sheet and heard footsteps behind her. The eyes of the English boy, a big boy, one of the new arrivals, regarded her blankly. She smiled at him, lifting the iron again.

‘Bo tar'.'

He frowned, then smiled back, but did not speak; he moved past the ironing-board, bare feet crossing the brilliant squares of sun, and went down the slippery wooden stairs. There was a turning, treads broadening to accommodate it, a place to sit. He sat. Below him, on a half-landing, was another window, where the curtains were drawn, so that this warm quiet place on the stairs felt enclosed and set apart from the rest of the house, which felt enormous. Tom was used to a flat.

Here, there were three bedrooms opening off the passage from the landing, with its rag runner which slipped and buckled up on the boards every time you walked along. His parents were in the room at the far end, with the wonderful view, and he and Jack, from the other family, were on the left, in twin iron beds painted white, with blue and white covers.

Jack was eight, a year older than him, and seemed okay. Tom hadn't wanted to have a rest after lunch, but Jack didn't seem to mind, so he'd followed him up the stairs, expecting a pillow fight, or some kind of game, anyway, but Jack had climbed on to his bed, reached for a book and begun to read, just like that. Tom shifted about, sighing, scratching his arm, moving his feet on the cover, messing it up. After a while he took his own book from the chair beside the bed,
The Ship of Adventure.
Enid Blyton was wicked: they'd done
The Castle of Adventure
on Children's BBC last term, it was brilliant. He turned the pages, getting stuck in, smacking and pursing his lips.

‘Stop it,' said Jack.


‘That noise.'

‘What noise?'

‘You're making a noise. With your mouth.'

‘Oh.' He stretched his lips taut and yawned. ‘D'you want to have a pillow fight?'

‘I'm reading.'

‘I mean after. When you've finished.'


‘Okay. Great.' Tom yawned again; he picked up his book and found his place. It was quite nice, really, reading up here with Jack. The pages rustled, the room was warm and the bed was okay, a bit hard. He yawned again, and the book felt very heavy. He closed his eyes.

Jack was still asleep when he woke up, so he'd left him. He'd gone along to his parents'door, remembering to knock, but there was no answer; he pushed it cautiously and looked inside. They were sleeping, too, dead asleep, he could tell. For a moment, in the quiet warmth of the room, he thought he might like to slip in beside them and just lie there, not disturb them or anything, just be there. But then he thought he might, by mistake, wake them up, and he carefully closed the door again and came along here; now he'd found this place.

He shifted his bottom in cotton shorts along the pleasing smooth surface of the wooden tread and listened, half listened, to the hiss and puff of the iron from the landing above him, and the buzz of a fly below, trapped between the half-landing window and the drawn curtains, patterned in orange and black. Guida's flip-flops moved intermittently along the carpet; the folded sheet was placed on a table by the wall, another taken from the basket beside her; there was a cloud of steam. It was lovely and peaceful: he shut his eyes, and as he did so he had the funny sort of feeling in his head which he'd had before – as if something inside it had moved, or as if, for a moment, he had gone somewhere else. Where?

He opened his eyes. He was still here. There was a dry dead fly on the stair: he flicked it with his finger and sat there making funny noises, absently. He thought he might go down in a bit and see if Jessica, Jack's sister, was awake: she was twelve, so she had the bedroom downstairs, off the big sitting-room, away from the grown-ups. Lucky. She seemed all right, too, quite friendly, really. He hoped they weren't all going to go to sleep every afternoon like this.

Tom got up and made his way downstairs. At the bottom, a passage led off to the left to a bathroom; he went and had a pee, with the usual shiver at the end. The bathroom was cool and shady, with a lot of green creeper at the window, and it smelt a bit. He pressed the handle, which was stiff, so he pressed it again, several times, getting impatient, until at last some water came, though not as much as at home. He wandered out, making clicking noises.

At the end of the passage he was about to turn down towards Jessica's room and the enormous sitting-room when he heard a sound, and stopped. It sounded like a cat, a rusty kind of cat: it was coming from the kitchen. He went in, and his bare feet stuck to the patches of old brown lino. It was dark in here, and felt like an olden-days kitchen, with a funny little gas stove and more of the creeper at the windows. He stood and listened, and the noise came again: it
a cat, outside the door, sounding weak. He hurried across, and tugged at the handle: this could be serious.

Sunlight poured through the cracks in the shutters in the other bedroom, too, the one across the landing, where Jack and Jessica's parents were waking up. Claire first, languorous and warm, stirring on the white cotton bedspread, stretching a long arm already browned from yesterday afternoon on the terrace and this morning by the river, flexing strong blunt fingers with pale unvarnished nails. Claire tanned easily: she was dark, with abundant hair and a skin which soaked up sun until by the end of the holiday she would be ripened to a sheen, the envy of the staffroom. She was wearing a sleeveless, soft white shirt with little, fabric-covered buttons, and a black and white unironed skirt, long and full, which no longer did up at the back; she lay with her head on her husband's chest and yawned like a sleepy cat, opening her eyes on to the golden strips of light at the far window, which overlooked the valley, and the one in the right-hand wall, which opened on to a little stone balcony above the terrace.

She had not finished unpacking and the room was strewn with clothes – clean ones, waiting for drawers, and grimy ones from the long drive across Spain, waiting for Guida. There were also jumbles of sandals and magazines, films and paperbacks and necklaces – on the floor, on the chest of drawers, on the little cane chair by the cupboard. After twenty-four hours the room looked, in truth, much as their bedroom at home looked – indeed, like many of the rooms at home, for Claire, although a capable person, had never in her life been tidy and had no ambition to be. There were moments in the mornings during termtime when she cursed herself, searching frantically for socks, keys and something to write with, but by and large she preferred muddle. It was friendlier.

She yawned again, and rolled away from Robert, hearing, from down on the terrace, the quiet creak of the swing-seat. Somebody must be up, then. She herself had no desire at all to get up, although tea would be nice: she had spent the morning with the children while Robert drove dutifully out to the airport to collect the Swifts; she had prepared lunch and made them welcome and served it, and that felt like quite enough. And there was supper to come – hardly fair to expect them to cook on their first night. After this, they must come to some arrangement.

They didn't know the Swifts well, although Claire, at university, had once thought she knew Frances – Frances Horne, as she was then – as well as anyone. That was in Bristol, in the early seventies. They were both reading English, and in the first year they both lived in the same hall of residence, at opposite ends of the same corridor. They went to the same lectures but were in different seminar groups, and they went their separate ways for all other aspects of university life also, bumping into each other from time to time in the hall kitchen, making cups of coffee.

BOOK: Last Guests of the Season
4.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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