Authors: Anthea Fraser
Table of Contents
ax Allerdyce came clattering down the basement stairs to the kitchen, kissed his wife, patted the dog, and announced, âIt looks as if someone's moving in next door.'
Rona nodded. âSo I noticed. Wonder who we'll get this time.'
The house next door, a four-storey Georgian like their own, had been empty for several months. Its owners lived abroad, and over the years there'd been a succession of tenants, most of whom had taken it for the minimum period of six months. Some of them Rona had barely seen during their tenure, some she'd known only to say âGood morning' to, and, very rarely, some they'd had in for drinks. Usually, the tenants were couples with school-age children whose jobs had moved them to the locality, and, intent on finding a place of their own, they'd had neither the time nor the inclination to strike up an acquaintance with temporary neighbours.
âSeen anything of them?' Max enquired, taking out a couple of glasses.
âAn elderly man went up the path at one point. If he's the one moving in, it'll be a change from the usual age group. Not that it'll make much difference; I doubt if we'll see much of them.' She took the drink he handed her. âThanks. How did the classes go?'
Once a week, Max held art classes in the afternoon for those who couldn't attend in the evenings â mainly housewives and the retired.
âOK, but it was unpleasantly hot in the studio. The fans are pretty useless; all they do is move the air around. If this weather continues, I'll have to think seriously about air con.'
âOne problem we don't have here, with these thick walls,' Rona commented. âIt stays cool in the highest temperatures.'
âAnd the lowest!' Max said with a laugh. âThank God for central heating.' He glanced outside. âThe sun's off the garden now; let's take our drinks out before I make a start on dinner. I thought we'd have a barbecue while the weather holds.'
Max was the chef of the family. Rona loathed cooking, and on the evenings he had classes she existed on takeaways, salads and visits to the conveniently close Italian restaurant.
He slid back the patio door, and she went ahead of him into the small paved garden. After the cool of the kitchen, the air was warm on her bare arms, and she inhaled with pleasure the mixture of scents drifting on it. She loved this small, private area, with its urns and baskets overflowing with flowers, and its small, half-hidden statues reminiscent of Italian courtyards. It was surrounded on three sides by a high wall of mellow, rose-coloured brick that now, in the evening sunlight, gave back its warmth.
Gus, the golden retriever, flopped down on the sun-baked flagstones, his tongue lolling. He seemed resigned to his evening walks becoming later and later, postponed till the heat of the day had abated.
Max and Rona strolled in contented silence to the end of the garden, from where they could see that the upstairs windows of the house next door were wide open.
âIt's been empty quite a while, hasn't it?' Rona commented. âI hope the agents gave it a good clean and airing before anyone moved in.'
âIf it's an elderly couple, at least we should be spared screaming children in the garden!'
He leant against the wall and lifted his face to the sun, eyes closed. âWhy did we spend a fortune on that holiday, when the weather's just as good here?'
They'd returned only days earlier from four weeks in Greece â longer than they usually took, but Rona's last assignment for
had been a trying one. She'd been subdued for weeks afterwards â hardly surprising, in view of what had happened â and Max had felt she needed a complete break.
âBecause here,' she answered lazily, her own head tilted back, âthere's no warm sea, or golden sand, or ouzo, or tavernas, orâ'
He laughed. âOK, you have a point.' He pushed himself away from the wall. âI'd better start sorting out the food. I'll give you a shout when I need your input.'
She walked back towards the house with him, and sank into one of the loungers by the open door.
He took her empty glass. âLike a top-up?'
âNo thanks, I'll wait for wine with the meal.'
He disappeared inside and she could hear him moving about, the fridge door opening and shutting, cupboard doors sliding. Gus ambled over and lay at her feet, yawning prodigiously, and she reached down to scratch his ears.
She admitted to herself that she'd needed that holiday. So much had changed over the past months; at the time it had carried her along with it, but the stresses and strains of that last project and the emotions aroused had proved the final straw. It was good of Max to have recognized that, and taken measures to rectify it.
Eighteen months ago, she reflected, life had seemed set in its smoothly running pattern. She'd been about to start on her fourth biography â of the recently deceased thriller writer, Theo Harvey. Her twin sister Lindsey, a solicitor, was bouncing back from her divorce from Hugh, and their parents, if not particularly happy, appeared to be rubbing along together as they had for years.
Now, all that had changed. Rona's own career seemed to have switched â at least temporarily â to that of freelance journalist at the glossy magazine
â a move that, while seeming innocuous enough, had flung her repeatedly into violent and distressing situations, a trend that her present series, on the history of long-established family businesses, was continuing to uphold.
Lindsey meanwhile had lurched from one unsuitable lover to another â including Hugh himself, who was now back on the scene â and her latest was, in Rona's view, an arrogant and opinionated millionaire, whose cavalier attitude left Lindsey miserable and unsure of herself.
Most dramatic of all, her parents had separated and Pops was now living in a flat in town, waiting for two years to elapse before divorcing to marry Catherine, an ex-headmistress. While Mum had miraculously metamorphosed from a drab, discontented shrew into a smartly turned-out woman with a part-time job and a paying guest.
How had it all come about? What âtide in the affairs of men' had been responsible for dropping her family into a kaleidoscope and giving them all a good shake? A mixed metaphor if ever there was one, Rona thought with a self-deprecating smile.
Only Max hadn't changed. In addition to his commissioned paintings and teaching at the art school, he continued to hold classes at Farthings, a cottage ten minutes' walk away, and spend three nights a week there following the evening sessions. Yet, though he was unaware of it, even their relationship had come under threat during that last assignment. Furthermore, though she longed to put the whole episode behind her, including the death of a young woman she'd considered her friend, she was prevented from doing so. For Curzon, local manufacturers of fine china whose history she'd been researching, would celebrate their hundred and fiftieth anniversary in two months' time, and, although all the work had been done on them, the articles were being held over to coincide with that. It was as though a small black cloud hovered over her, and however hard she tried, she couldn't escape it.
Max's call came as a welcome diversion. âOK, time to prepare the salad.'
She swung her feet to the ground, narrowly missing the dog. âComing!' she said.
Lindsey phoned the next morning.
âI'm fed up. Are you free for lunch?'
âI'm free for anything at the moment,' Rona answered wryly.
âStill not back in gear? That's what four weeks away does for you.'
âI needed it, Linz.'
âI need it too, but I'm not likely to get it.'
âOne of the advantages of self-employment. Max organizes his own classes, and the students had no objection to the four-week break. Which just left the art school, and as he only teaches there one day a week and was able to arrange a stand-in, it wasn't a problem. And to answer your question, yes, I'm free for lunch. Where shall we go?'
âThe Gallery at one? Then I can shop my way down.'
âI'll be there.'
The next call was from Barnie Trent, features editor at
âHow's my favourite journalist?'
âGuilt-ridden,' Rona replied.