Authors: Deborah Moggach
“Nobody in the world knows our secret... that I've ruined Bev's life, and she's ruined mine.”
Petra's romantic life has always been a car-crash, and even in her sixties she's still capable of getting it disastrously wrong. But then she falls in love with Jeremy, an old chum, visiting from abroad. The fatal catch? Jeremy is her best friend's husband.
But just as Petra is beginning to relax into her happy ever after, she finds herself catapulted to West Africa, and to Bev, her best friend who she's been betraying so spectacularly. Meanwhile, on opposite sides of the world, two other women are also struggling with the weight of betrayal: Texan Lorrie is about embark on the biggest deception of her life, and in China Li-Jing is trying to understand exactly what it is her husband does on his West African business tripsâ¦
It turns out that no matter wherever you are in the world, everyone has something to hide. Can Bev â can anyone â be trusted?
Deborah Moggach is the author of many successful novels including
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
, which was made into a top-grossing film starring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith. Her screenplays include the film of
Pride and Prejudice
, which was nominated for a BAFTA. She lives in Wales.
You Must be Sisters
Close to Home
A Quiet Drink
Hot Water Man
To Have and To Hold
Driving in the Dark
Smile and Other Stories
In the Dark
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
(first published as
These Foolish Things
To Lyra, Kit and Merida, with love
ERNESTINE WAS A
tall, muscular woman who carried a beauty parlour on her head. This was a heavy wooden box, open at the front, packed with all the products a female might need to make herself desirable â face creams, hair accessories, soap, make-up, skin lighteners, conditioners, razors, hair-removal foam, kirby grips and ornaments, perfumes and body lotions. Ernestine sold these in the local villages, tramping along footpaths in her dusty flip-flops, stopping at the secondary school to catch the girls when they came out, working the crossroads where each Thursday the buses disgorged the women returning from market.
Though dealing in beauty, Ernestine herself was the least vain of women. Back in her house there was a small, cracked mirror propped on a shelf but she seldom had time to look at it. Besides, when night fell it was too dark to see anything because they had no electricity. And besides, her husband seemed happy with her as she was.
Or so she believed.
He was a good man, you see. A devout churchgoer, like herself; a hard-working father to their children. Unlike so many men, oh so many, he had never strayed, or even expressed the smallest interest in another woman. They had been married for seventeen years and never, not once, had she regretted leaving her family home in the north, beside the great lake with its drowned trees. The trees were drowned when they built the dam and her little brothers used to make money swimming through the underwater forest, unpicking the nets that had tangled in the branches. Ernestine
dreamed about the lake, about the sun sinking over the water and beneath it the fish swimming between the tree-trunks but she had no desire to return to her childhood, she had her own children now, she loved them and was loved, the Lord be praised, and Kwomi was a good man. Or so she thought.
The night before it happened, the Wednesday night, Grace came home late. Grace was the eldest of Ernestine's daughters, a studious young woman of sixteen. She was tall and big-boned, like her mother, with a square jaw and an uncompromising stare through her spectacles. She worked hard at school. In the evenings, when the village was plunged into darkness, she toiled at her homework under one of the few glows of illumination â the strip light of the fried-fish stall on the main road. People stopped to gossip with her auntie, who ran it, but Grace kept her head down, she was uninterested in tittle-tattle, she was fierce in her determination to pass her exams and go to college. Not for her the girlish giggles at school, the huddled whisperings about boys and lipstick. Grace was above such things; indeed, she had recently been elected Team Leader of the Abstinence Programme, its slogan Just Say No. She lectured her fellow teenagers on the perils of premarital sex and how early parenthood destroyed all hopes of a future career. She led the singing, âBoys boys boys take care of girls girls girls', and offered, as an alternative to temptation, the taking up of vigorous sports and the reading of improving texts.
All in all she was an admirable young woman. Ernestine was proud of her â how could she not be? Sometimes, however, she felt awed by her daughter, and feared for the girl whose rigid convictions were so untempered by the harsh complications of life. And Grace was not the easiest person to live with; recently she had grown short-tempered, as if her own family, even her brothers and sisters, were included in the congregation of sinners.
That evening she was particularly irritable, and snapped at her granny for forgetting to wash her football shirt. There was a match the next day with the team from Oreya High School. She stomped off into the bedroom she shared with her sisters. Ernestine, at the time, presumed she was frustrated by the earlier power cut that had plunged even the fish stall into darkness. She was not an interfering mother and besides, with a family as large as hers there were always plenty of squabbles, particularly amongst the girls. The boys just fought.
For sure it was hard work, surviving day to day with eight mouths to feed, but the Lord had blessed them with good health and despite their worries they had much to be thankful for. Many of Ernestine's customers were women struggling to bring up their families alone, their husbands working a long way from home, or passed away, or gone off gallivanting with another woman. One of them had taken a seventeen-year-old girl as his second wife, would you believe, a man of forty-three, and had moved to Nigeria, leaving his children fatherless.
For sure, Ernestine was blessed to have Kwomi for a husband.
The next day, Thursday, was market-day at Oreya. Kwomi travelled there each week to sell the plantains and pineapples he grew on his land; on that particular day Ernestine accompanied him as she had to buy new stock from the wholesaler.
On market day the town was jammed with traffic â buses, trucks, tro-tros, burdened with sacks of produce. Hawkers crowded around them selling crisps, bananas, bibles, fried snacks, fizzy drinks, Arsenal T-shirts, selling everything under the sun. Ernestine recognized Mustafa, the little son of her neighbour, his head weighed down with a bowl of plastic water-sachets which he passed to the outstretched hands. He choked in the fumes, he had asthma, but his mother could neither afford medicine nor to send him to school, she was a widow and Ernestine felt sorry for the boy and grateful, yet again, that her children knew their alphabet and had a father who took care of them and sang hymns beside them in church.
Kwomi left his mobile at the phone-charging booth before disappearing into the crowd of the market-place. Every week he left his phone there and picked it up in the afternoon, before going home. The phone-charger, Asaf, sat behind his array of mobiles. Ernestine had never seen him moving from his position; he had sharp eyes that missed nothing, there was something about him that made her uneasy. She could feel him watching her as she negotiated her way through the traffic to God Is Good Beauty Products, on the other side of the road.
Ernestine enjoyed her visits to Lily, who ran the business. They sat in the back room, the ceiling fan whirring, drinking Fanta and gossiping. Lily told her about the latest scandals, whose husband had run away with whose wife, whose daughter had become pregnant. That particular day she told Ernestine a story about two little girls who were tricked into having the Dipo, the initiation rite, but who escaped, jumping onto a tro-tro and hiding amongst the passengers. Ernestine was enthralled; dramas in the town seemed so much larger than those in her own sleepy village. Little did she suspect the drama brewing across the road.
At the end of the day the market packed up. Her husband was still busy so Ernestine went to collect his mobile phone. Asaf paused before giving it back.
âI have something to tell you, madam,' he said, his voice hoarse. She smelt alcohol on his breath. âIt's not pleasant, but I feel it is my duty.' Sorrowfully, he gazed at the mobile in his hand. âI sit here, you understand. I sit here and watch the world go by. And I know what's going on because I have
He lifted the mobile and waved it in the air. âIt concerns your husband and a
He looked up at her, waiting for her reaction. She didn't speak.
He passed her the mobile. âIt beeped when it charged. That means it received a message.' Asaf raised his eyebrows. âIt's you I was thinking of, madam.'
âWhat do you mean?' she whispered.
âWhat do I mean, dear lady? I mean, I pressed the button and I listened to the message, which was of an intimate nature. Tell me I was wicked.
wicked. But it's done, and I believe you ought to know.'
Ernestine stood jammed against her husband in the bus. She couldn't speak; she felt emptied of breath. Kwomi said nothing either but then he was a man of few words. His silence today, however, seemed pregnant with guilt. His bony hip pressed against her but now it felt like a stranger's body.
Her brain felt sluggish, drugged with shock. The questions turned over and over, laboriously. How could he do such a thing? How long had it been going on? How often had it happened? How could he betray her, and his children? How
The woman's name was Adwoa and Ernestine knew her well. In fact Adwoa Shaibu-Ali was one of her best customers. She lived at the far end of the village and was a buxom, handsome, lazy woman with a brood of illiterate children, for Adwoa kept the girls at home to look after the babies that she produced at regular intervals and to do the housework which she was too indolent to do herself. Her thin, elderly husband worked uncomplainingly to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed â new make-up, new clothes, a monthly visit to Oreya to get her hair-weaves put in. Few of the local women could afford the hairdresser and wrapped their heads in cloths but Adwoa's hair was always glossy, a curvy bob, ornamented with a selection of Ernestine's novelty clips. Most of the day Adwoa sat around nattering to her neighbours, leafing through magazines and pausing only to cuff one of her children. And texting on her mobile. She was always texting.