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Authors: Nicci French

Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Psychological

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BOOK: Secret Smile
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It was all chaos. Brendan opened the
champagne in between hugs from my mother and handshakes from my father. Troy
gave a shrug and said it was really good and wished them luck. My mother hugged
Kerry so tightly I thought she would do her damage. When the champagne was
poured and distributed, my father gave a cough. Oh God, I thought. Another
speech.

'I'm not going to say too much,' he said.
'It's all been rather quick, I must say.' He smiled at my mother, a shy smile
that made him look like a boy. 'But then, if I remember rightly, some other
people in this room acted rather impulsively when they first met.' My parents
met at a wedding of a friend in 1974 and were married two months later.
'Sometimes we should trust our instincts. And one thing I know: I have never
seen Kerry look so happy and so beautiful. Brendan, I think you're lucky to
have her.'

'I know,' he said, and we all laughed.

'What I really wanted,' said my father,
'is to drink to the happy couple. Can we call them that?'

'The happy couple,' we all said and
clinked each other's glasses.

I looked at Kerry. She was almost crying.
My mother was definitely crying. Brendan was blowing his nose on a handkerchief
and wiping his shiny cheeks. Even my father looked suspiciously near to tears.
I made myself a promise. I would make this work. Or, at least, I would let it
work. I felt a prod at my elbow.

'A penny for your thoughts,' said Brendan.

'Congratulations,' I said. 'I'm very glad
for you.'

'That's important to me.' He looked
around. Mum and Dad and Kerry and Troy were in a group at the far end of the
room, talking, laughing. Brendan leaned closer to me.

'When I made the announcement, I was
looking at you,' he said. 'You looked shocked.'

'Surprised,' I said. 'It's been sudden.'

'I can see it's difficult for you,' he
said.

'It's not difficult at all.'

'When I was talking, I was looking at your
mouth,' he said.

'What?'

'You've got a beautiful mouth,' Brendan
said. He moved closer still. I could smell his breath, sour against my face.
'And I was thinking that I've come into that mouth.'

'What?'

'It's funny,' he said, in a low voice.
'I'm marrying your sister and I was thinking of my semen in your mouth.'

'What?' I said again, too loudly.

The others stopped talking and looked
round. I felt something on my skin, hot, feverish.

'Excuse me,' I said, my mouth feeling
clammy. I put my glass down and walked out of the room quickly. I heard Brendan
saying something. I went into the lavatory. Just in time I pushed my head
towards the bowl and vomited in spasms, again and again, until there was
nothing left but hot fluid that burned my mouth and throat.

 

CHAPTER 8

 

'Are you sure you're all right to do this?
Miranda?'

'What? Yes, quite sure. It'll be fun.'

My mind was elsewhere entirely. In bed
with Nick the night before, all night. Sleeping at last, then waking in the
hours before dawn, dazed with tiredness, and feeling for each other in the
darkness. And in the morning he was still there, a stranger's face on the
pillow. Miraculous. I blinked and smiled at Kerry. My lips were sore, my body
tingled.

'There are four of them I've arranged to
see,' she was saying, 'and I've worked out how to do it most efficiently. It'll
only take an hour or so. Maybe less. You can't tell from the estate agents'
details, can you?'

'I can take you out for lunch after, if
you like.'

'That would be lovely. I said I'd meet
Brendan. We can just call him and he'll join us wherever we decide to go. He
wanted to come this morning, except he'd promised Dad to help him with moving
all their furniture before the workmen arrive tomorrow morning and tear the
house to bits. He couldn't do it this afternoon because we've got this man
coming to look at my flat for the second time.'

'Let's see what time we're through with
this,' I said, backpedalling. 'Maybe I'll just have to dash off anyway, come to
think of it. I've got a loft extension waiting.'

'It's Sunday,' she protested. 'You work
too hard.' Happiness had made her generous. She wanted everyone else to be
happy too. 'You look tired.'

'Do I?' I reached up and touched my face
gently, the way Nick had done. 'I'm fine, Kerry. Just a bit of a late night,
that's all.'

 

 

We'd gone to see a film. It wasn't much
good, but that didn't matter. We'd leaned into each other, his hand on my
thigh, my head pressed against his shoulder. Every so often we'd turned our
faces to each other and kissed, just lightly: a promise. He'd bought a tub of
salty popcorn, but neither of us ate much of it. We'd both known it was
tonight, and the film was just about waiting in the dark, emptying our minds of
the other things. For me that meant trying to forget what Brendan had said to
me the evening before. The way he'd leaned forwards and whispered it. Smiling
and saying that thing. I mustn't think of it; I had to get it out of my mind,
where it was buzzing like a fat, unclean fly. So I gazed at the images
flickering across the screen, glanced at Nick. Every so often closed my eyes.

When we wandered into the foyer, it was
dark outside. Nick lifted my hand and kissed the back of it. 'Where now?'

'My flat's nearer than yours,' I said.

We got a bus there and sat on the top,
right at the front. I pressed my forehead against the window and felt the
vibrations and looked at the people on the streets beneath me, walking with
their heads bent against the gusts of wind. I felt nervous. Soon, I would be
making love with this man who was sitting beside me now, not speaking, whom I'd
only met twice. What then? Sometimes sex can feel casual and easy, but
sometimes it seems momentous and full of problems; almost impossible. Two
people with all their hopes and expectations and neuroses and desires, like two
worlds colliding.

'This is our stop,' I said.

He stood up and then pulled me to my feet.
His hand was warm and firm. He smiled down at me. 'All right?'

It was all right. Just fine. And then, after
we'd made ourselves a sandwich out of one of those half-baked baguettes which I
had in my cupboard, with goat's cheese and tomatoes, and drunk a glass of wine
each, we went back into the bedroom and this time it was better than all right.
It was lovely. Just thinking about it now, in Kerry's car, made me feel liquid
with desire. Then we had a bath together, legs tangled up in the small tub, my
foot pressed against the inside of his thigh, grinning like idiots at each
other.

 

 

'What are you grinning at?'

'Mmm? Oh, nothing.'

'Here. This is the first one.' Kerry
pulled up and squinted at the sheet of paper dubiously. 'It says it's a
two-bedroom maisonette, retaining many period features.'

'Does it say it's next to a pub?'

'No, it doesn't.'

'Let's go and see, anyway.'

It's dangerous buying houses. You know
before you set foot inside whether you like them. It's almost like a
relationship, when they say it's the first few seconds that count, that
instant, pre-rational impression. You have to fall in love with the house you
buy. Everything else — whether the roof's sound, the plumbing good, the rooms
numerous enough — is almost irrelevant at the start. You can knock down walls
and install a damp-proof course, but you can't make yourself fall in love. I
was here as the expert; as the voice of caution.

Kerry knocked and the door flew open as if
the woman had been standing with her eye pressed to the spyhole, looking for
our approach.

'Hello, come in, mind the step, shall I
show you round or do you want to do it yourself, except there are a few details
that you might miss, here, come in here first, this is the living room, sorry
about the mess...'  She was large and breathless and spoke in a headlong rush,
words spilling over each other. She careered us from room to tidied room, over
frantically patterned carpets. The walls were covered with plates they'd
collected, from Venice, Amsterdam, Scarborough, Cardiff, Stockholm, and for
some reason the sight of them made me feel sorry for her. She pulled open doors
with a flourish, showed us the airing cupboard and the new boiler, the second
toilet that was crammed into a space that had been carved out of the kitchen,
the dimmer switches in the tiny master bedroom, and the spare bedroom that
looked more like a broom cupboard and had clearly been built by cowboys. I
pushed the wall surreptitiously and saw it shake. Kerry made polite murmurs and
looked around her with bright eyes that transformed everything into her
beatific future. She was probably already putting a cot in the spare bedroom.

'Does the pub bother you?' I asked the
woman.

'The pub?' She acted surprised, wrinkled
her brow. 'Oh, that. No. You hardly hear it. Maybe on a Saturday night. . .'

As if on cue, the first burst of music
thumped through the wall, the bass notes shaking in the air. She flushed, but
then carried on talking as if she hadn't heard anything. I glanced at my watch:
it was eleven-thirty on a Sunday morning. We did the rest of the tour anyway,
making vaguely enthusiastic remarks about the view from the bathroom window,
the wedge-shaped garden. The more you don't like a place, the more you have to
pretend you do. But I don't think the woman was fooled.

'What do you think?' asked Kerry as we
left. 'If we

'Definitely not. Not for half the price.'

 

 

'It's falling down,' I said as we left the
second house.

'But...'

'That's why it's so cheap. That's why the
sale fell through. You might be able to afford to buy it, but you'd have to
spend the same again. I'm not even sure you could get it insured.'

'It's such a nice house.'

'It's a wreck. She's got someone in to
plaster and paint over the worst bits in the hall, but there's damp everywhere,
probably subsidence. You'd need a structural engineer to check it over. The
window frames are rotting. The wiring is primeval. Do you have the capital to
do it up?'

'Maybe when Bren, you know, finds a job .
. .'

'Is he looking?'

'Oh, yes. And thinking hard about what he
really thinks is right for him. He says it's a chance to begin again and make
the life he really wants for himself.' She blushed. 'For us,' she added.

'In the meantime, he's got nowhere to
sell, and it's just what you get from your flat and your income.'

'Mum and Dad have been very generous.'

'Have they?' I tried to suppress the stab
of resentment I felt when I heard that. 'No more than you deserve. But don't
blow it on that house.'

 

 

You have to be able to imagine what isn't
there, and imagine away what is, see underneath things, impose your own taste
on top of them. The third place was filthy and smelled of cigarettes and years
of unopened windows. The walls were brown and stained, or had faded flowery
wallpaper covering them. The carpets were an unlovely purple. The living room
needed to be knocked into the kitchen-dining room, to create a huge open space
downstairs. The plasterboard needed to be ripped away from the fireplace.

'You could have a huge sunroof over the
kitchen, and maybe open it out even further into a conservatory. It'd be
fantastic'

'Do you think so?'

'With that garden, definitely. It must be
about sixty feet long.'

'It's big for London, isn't it? But it's
just nettles.'

'Think what it could be like!'

'Did you see the state of the kitchen?'

'He lived there for years without doing
anything at all to it. But that's the joy of it — it's ready for you to do
whatever you want.'

'It's more spacious than I thought we
could afford. And all the cornices and mouldings and proper sash windows

'It looks pretty solid to me, as far as I
could tell. I'll help you with it.'

'Really? You'd do that?'

'Of course.'

'And you think it's the right place for
us?'

'It's your choice. You've got to want it
and what I think doesn't matter. But you could make it really lovely.'

Kerry squeezed my arm. 'I can't wait to
tell Brendan.'

I pressed the button on the answering
machine.

'Hello, Mirrie. I hear you've just chosen our
new home for us. That's very sweet. But a bit strange as well, don't you think?
I guess we've just got to get used to that, though, haven't we?'

I pressed the erase button. My hands were
shaking.

 

 

Tony and Laura and Nick and I went to the
pub together. That was the stage we'd jumped to, going out as a. couple, in a
foursome. Everyone was very friendly to each other, wanting to get along. Nick
bought us all a round and then Laura did, and then, out of the blue, just when
things were going so well, I found myself talking about Brendan.

BOOK: Secret Smile
4.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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