Authors: Sue Moorcroft
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
Maybe she ought to book into a B&B. The prospect seemed suddenly attractive.
Would Molly be offended - or relieved? She tried to envisage her life as a guest of her sister and brother-in-law. Was Molly still grumpy in the mornings? Would Frankie feel he couldn't relax and be himself with Judith there? Or, worse still, that he could? He might wear a gaping dressing gown and scratch sweaty bits of him.
In the spare room, she discovered, against her expectations, Molly had emptied the wardrobe. The furniture smelled of Lemon Pledge and the fresh peach bed linen of fabric conditioner. By the time all Judith's bags were in the room - carried ultra-carefully up the stairs, for God's sake don't mark the new wallpaper - the floor area had shrunk dramatically. Hemmed in by her possessions she felt a massive heave of homesickness for her own place. The comfortable rooms of her flat on The Strand, the balcony scorched by the sun and overlooking the rippling blue of Sliema Creek and across to Valletta. The double bed in the shaded bedroom at the back.
Bit late for that. Her flat had been abandoned along with the rest of her life in Malta. Uncle Richard or one of her capable cousins would have it sub-let in days. She yanked her thoughts away from Sliema, made an effort not to be ungracious. 'Sorry to put you out like this, Moll. I'm disrupting your life, aren't I?'
'Oh well,' shrugged Molly. But her curranty black eyes sharpened. 'Of course, it was a bombshell, I'll be honest with you. A phone call yesterday - then today, you're here, bag and baggage.'
She waited, her eyebrows raised. At Judith's silence, she reached behind herself and pushed the door closed. To signify that Judith could speak in confidence? Or that neither of them would be leaving the room until a measure of guts had been spilled?
With a sigh, Judith sank down on the bed.
Molly folded her arms and her face settled into lines that could almost have said
I could've told you something like this was going to happen
. 'Is it that man you've been mixed up with? Gino?'
, then. Has it all ended?'
Judith tried to sound as if she'd considered, was summarising a prolonged deliberation rather than a snap decision to flee. Some degree of explanation was due to her sister, she supposed, for leaving her life, her job, the place that had been home for the past three years, to dump herself in Molly's home. 'There doesn't seem much future for us.'
Molly sighed - exasperation rather than sympathy. 'All that business with his family, I suppose? Or did he find someone more his own age? I know you've never quite lost that angular, schoolgirl look that means you don't look your years, but a gap always seems more when it's the woman who's the oldest, doesn't it?'
She winced. 'Neither of those things.'
'Well, don't blame yourself - '
'But I think I am to blame. Look, Moll darling.' Judith scrambled to her feet and slid a sisterly arm around the other woman. 'I feel as if I'm putting you out enormously, why don't I book into a B&B for now, then perhaps rent somewhere for a few weeks until I can get my tenant out? I'll see him tomorrow and give him notice.' She squeezed the cushiony shoulders. 'I shouldn't have just dropped myself on you like this, you have your own life to get on with. I'm a disgrace, aren't I?' she joked.
Molly didn't seem to get jokes. 'You're
here! I'll let you settle in.' She swung out of the room, leaving Judith to flop back down onto the bed. Welcome? She automatically translated the word into Maltese.
. Hmm. She shouldn't have presumed upon her sister's hospitality. But, with their mother ensconced in a care home now, an automatic return-to-family reflex had sent her to Molly.
At least, now she was 'home', she'd be able to see more of Mum, pay surprise visits to The Cottage retirement home. 'Hello! I've called to see Wilma Morgan, I'm her daughter.' Sit with her. Take her out. Talk. Try not to swear and make her mother tut. 'Really, Judith, do we
to have that language all the time?'
And Judith not being able to resist, 'Bloody right!' Or worse.
Making Wilma laugh in return. 'Don't you think you're a little old to still be playing the rebellious child?'
She closed tired eyes. Immediately his face swam into focus.
Her heart swelled and shrank sickeningly.
She forced her eyes to open wide, wide, very wide.
After half-an-hour of unproductive staring at the ceiling, she rolled off Molly's spare bed. Better unpack sufficient clothes for a few days, she supposed, cardigans and fleeces included. Northamptonshire's summer was a different prospect to Malta's. Here the clouds were a pale grey blanket, no high blue sky, no heat clinging on the breeze or seeping up from the rock. Here she'd often need long sleeves, jeans and socks.
She threw open a case and yanked out a handful of underwear, stretchy, lacy, pretty. She opened one of the small drawers at the top of the oak chest set beside the window. Halted. The drawer was already full of underwear in neat piles, plain, white or beige, and definitely not hers.
She shut the drawer again, thoughtfully, and tucked her stuff into the empty one beside it.
Dinner was served formally in the cavernous dining room. Two Hepplewhite china cabinets and a dining suite for ten covered only a portion of the honey-coloured wool twist carpet. Judith was convinced that Frankie O'Malley earned enough to provide sufficient furniture to make the room gracious. It was like Molly, however, to not really see the point of furniture for furniture's sake. Not for her a couple of comfy recliners by the French doors, perhaps in bluebell leather, or plum, with a sexy little stereo and a bulbous lamp on a side table. Nor a jardinière to fill a corner, or a grandfather clock to chime companionably.
Theirs was a house that ached for loving touches.
Molly brushed aside Judith's offers to take them out for a meal or buy a takeaway. 'You're our
.' Molly might sigh over the extra work even as she refused offers of help, but she would look after her guest with special meals and fresh towels. That was the way Molly was. 'Also, Frankie will only complain if we were to go out, he likes home cooking.' That was the way Frankie was.
'Does anyone else know you're home?'
Judith shook her head in response to Molly's question, and tried to feel some appetite for juicy lamb chops and pungent cabbage. 'No, nobody. Yet.'
'Not Thomas? Not Kieran?'
Frankie looked up from where he'd been silently engrossed in his meal, his attention caught by the sound of Tom's name. Frankie and Judith's ex-husband, Tom, each ran building firms in the town, occasionally combining forces to tackle larger jobs. They were mates, it was through her brother-in-law that Judith had met Tom fifteen years ago. Frankie displayed a fierce loyalty to his mates, to all things male, really. Wilma termed it being A Man's Man.
Frankie reached for extra peas. 'He's very cut up, is old Tom. Had a hard time of it this last year.'
'Because Exotic Liza left,' supplied Molly, as if Judith might have somehow forgotten that his third wife had recently abandoned Tom.
Liza's name had once had the power to slice through Judith like a cutlass, not so much because she'd put paid to Judith's marriage, but because she'd shaken her self-belief. Liza had known that Tom was married - Tom had known that he was married - yet she hadn't let it stop her having a taste of his big, bullish body. Liza had been the classic 'new model', younger, prettier, more desirable and, for all Judith knew, better in bed. But falling in love with Giorgio had so restored and healed Judith that it even made her grateful to Liza, because without Liza stealing her man she would never have found another.
'Careless with his wives, isn't he? Pam dies, me and Exotic Liza leave.' Judith was scarcely even thinking about Tom, but actually coming to the agreeable realisation that she could ring Kieran tomorrow and speak to him, even meet him in person instead of relying on the wonders of e-mail to keep in touch. Kieran was home from university and working in Northampton now. He was probably right here in Brinham. This moment he could be playing squash at the sports centre or having a drink with his mates in one of the pubs Judith had known all her life, his boyish face quick to smile, his toffee-coloured eyes to twinkle.
Frankie shot her a severe look. 'Tom took Liza's desertion very hard.' He stabbed the meat from his cutlet. 'He had no idea that she was seeing someone else.'
Judith brought her mind back to the subject. 'Not much fun, is it, to discover that the person you're married to is having sex with someone else? It rather blights the marriage.'
Frankie pointed his knife. 'You could've patched things up with Tom, if you'd wanted. He
prepared to give Liza up for you - it was you who chose to leave.'
'True.' She stopped pretending to eat. 'I'm afraid I'm terribly unforgiving. After all, it only took me discovering his horrid little affair for him to offer to end it.'
Frankie began enumerating Tom's problems on his stubby, grainy fingers. 'That Liza, she took the Mercedes, she took all the money out of the savings accounts, she kept her credit cards, and she took...' He stopped, and snatched up his fork.
Judith grinned suddenly, her cheeks stiff, as if wrenched into unaccustomed positions. Then laughed. 'Has he been stashing away cash again, do you mean? Tucking it behind radiators and underneath drawers so the tax man can't find it?' She threw back her head. 'Ha! Talk about hitting him where it hurts. Was it much?'
Frankie grunted. 'Poor bastard's been left with nothing but the house.'
bastard. Scraping by in a seven-bedroom palace.'
'You can laugh!' Frankie flushed, his eyes glittering with irritation. He and Judith often became prickly with each other. 'First he had to take out a mortgage to pay you off, and now Liza's snitched all the liquid assets and done a runner to France with her new bit of rough. He bought that house and spent a fortune doing it up, and, at sixty, he ought to be able to retire. Instead he's got to keep working just to put back what you women have taken out of him.'
Pushing her chair back, Judith rose, any sympathy she might have felt for Tom flitting away. 'Parasitical, aren't we? And all Tom ever wanted was a housekeeper/cook/gardener for his seven-bed palace, one who would also bring home a full month's salary and give him sex. I expect he would've preferred us all to die, like poor Pamela, bringing him in a nice fat insurance cheque.'
'Liza never brought home no full month's salary!'
'Ah, but she doubled up on the sex.'
Frankie began serving himself seconds. 'All I'm saying is that you never
to leave him!'
Judith sighed, and smiled at her brother-in-law. 'No. And I wouldn't have done if he hadn't been unfaithful. He did me a favour.'
Morning. Judith woke to a silent Sunday, early daylight falling on her stack of suitcases and yesterday's clothes strewn over a chair upholstered in yellow damask. She sat up and raked her fingers through her hair. Two tasks today: take the first step towards reclaiming her house, and ring Kieran. Her tenant, being a mature man, might well be at home with the papers. Kieran, being an immature man, would likely be in bed until lunchtime. She'd approach the tenant.
It was a twenty-minute walk to Lavender Row at Judith's rapid pace. She must get a car sorted out, maybe one of those titchy, zippy little things, a Smart car or a Cinquecento.
But, in the meantime, the weather was dry and her smoke-grey fleece was warm, a walk would be good. It would get her out of Molly's house, too. Molly and Frankie had been bickering. She hoped they hadn't been bickering over her.
The sooner she was back in her own place, the better for all concerned. Apart, perhaps, for the tenant.
In her bag was a letter, hot off the computer in Frankie's office, giving the tenant notice. She'd printed on the smooth white envelope,
. Staring at the name, she was awash suddenly with memories of Brinham Grammar. Stiff navy blazers, tan leather satchels with doodles all over the inside (because doodles on the outside would get you detention and a sharp letter home). Logarithm books, sensible black shoes, white shirts and striped ties, echoing corridors, quadrangles at break time, hockey in the rain, the A stream, the smell of chalk dust and plimsolls, crisps from the tuck shop with little blue bags of salt in. Boys in the corridors and many of the lessons. Adam Leblond. It had always sounded like a good name for a pop star, a crooner with golden hair and a repertoire of dance steps. Still, she supposed, the name didn't sound bad on a fifty-something photographer.
As she walked, she absorbed her surroundings, the greenness of the fields glimpsed between the streets, the trees lining the roads, the flourishing gardens - some so 'flourishing' that a machete and a flame gun would be required to get them under control. Weeds just didn't grow like that in Malta, it was a real contrast to the palm, cypress, twisted olive trees and grey-green spear-like agaves that dotted dry Maltese earth. Her eyes had become used to stone and sand-like soil, dust instead of mud.