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Authors: Sue Moorcroft

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction

Uphill All the Way (6 page)

BOOK: Uphill All the Way
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She was bound to miss Malta.

Miss the constant, mighty presence of the sea, the unremitting glare of the sun. It would be different going back to Lavender Row. The houses there were terraced but what an estate agent might refer to as 'villas', double fronted, the windows set into stone mullions, the rooms large and tall with ornate plasterwork, moulded picture rails and the high kind of skirting boards. Her house, number 18, had a gravelled area to the front, and a long strip of garden at the back.

She'd bought the house outright when she and Tom divided things up upon divorce. Divorce had brought to light the full extent of Tom's assets, although very few of them liquid. In order to keep the house, the yard, the machinery and equipment, he had, as Frankie said, had to raise capital on his collateral to pay Judith off. She could have bought the house twice.

Once paid off, Judith had enjoyed furnishing her new home with plain carpets and chunky wood, relished the return to the pleasure of being independent.

Tom, in contrast, had growled and muttered and fought to remain in the seven-bed detached they'd shared in Victoria Gardens - all that housework! - because it was 'an investment'. Later, the value plummeted when an edge-of-town retail park was built on what had been a green belt of land behind it. Instead of looking out on hedges and fields, Tom now looked out on a row of leggy conifers doing an inadequate job of disguising a DIY shop's loading bay. For some reason, the planners had also allowed a nightclub to move into one of the industrial units, providing a noisy, technicolour finale to most Fridays and Saturdays for the nearby residents.

Someone ought to have pointed out to Tom that investments could go down as well as up.

Judith swung into Lavender Row where cars lined either side owing to the absence of driveways, and paused when she reached number 18. Neat. The front garden, a small strip, was gravelled, a dwarf acer in a cobalt blue pot in the middle. The front door was painted black.

She wrinkled her nose. Broken windows and rubbish piled in the garden would have suited her better, given her an excuse for early termination of the tenancy. Oh well.

Pressing the white button, she listened to the bell, and prepared to meet Adam Leblond once more. What would he be like, now? Fat? Bald? Grey?

But the man who answered her peal was none of these things. He was about the same age as Kieran and if he'd told her he
was
a member of a band, she would have believed him. Heavy metal, though, with his long hair and ripped jeans.

'Hey,' he greeted her amiably. She knew, from Kieran, that 'hey' was the new 'hi'. He pushed dark hair back over his shoulders, scratched his bare chest and tugged tattered jeans higher over his hips.

Judith glanced again at the house. It was definitely hers. 'I'm looking for Adam Leblond.'

'Yeah, upstairs. Do you want me to shout?'

She hesitated, checked her watch. It was eleven o'clock. 'If you think it'll be all right. I'm Judith McAllister. I'm the landlord.'

'Oh, right.' He turned his face towards the stairs. '
Dad? Dad! Lady who owns the house is here!
' So this was Adam Leblond's son.

A pause, a muffled shout.

'Can you wait five minutes? He hasn't emerged yet.'

'I'll come back - '

'No, come in.' He pulled the door open further. The hall carpet, she'd left all the carpets, looked freshly vacuumed, otherwise the hall was empty. 'I'm Caleb.'

She wondered who Adam Leblond had produced this interesting young specimen with, whether any of the adoring legion of Brinham girls who'd pulled in their stomachs when Adam Leblond blew past on his dark green racing bike had been the lucky one. She'd hardly seen him since he'd left sixth form. He'd faded from her memory until Melanie's e-mail.
If you haven't got new tenants yet, would you let the house to a friend of Ian's? You might even remember him from school, he was two years ahead of us and his name's Adam Leblond.

The name had sent a nostalgic shock through her, but, deeply involved with Giorgio, she hadn't spared the time to share those old emotions with Melanie. In any event her crush, secret and agonising, had been based on a solitary conversation about sweets outside the school gates.

Sure
, she'd replied, glad enough not to have to get involved again with local agents.
If you and Ian recommend him, I'm sure he'll be ideal.

She followed Caleb down the wide passageway to the kitchen with its side window overlooking the patio. Apart from an open bag of Hovis and a sprinkling of crumbs beside the toaster, the room was immaculate. She recalled e-mails from [email protected] seeking permission to decorate, and shrugging off her offer to pay towards materials. He'd evidently done a great job. White gloss gleamed on the woodwork, creamy yellow emulsion on the walls contrasted with blood red curtains, and the pine units were freshly coated. The worktops were uncluttered.

Caleb offered her a drink, taking down a thick, orange mug. 'I would tell you to make yourself at home, but as it belongs to you...' He grinned. His eyes were grey and shone with humour in his tanned face.

She sat down at the kitchen table. 'Do you live here?'

He slid two slices of white into the toaster. 'On and off, while I'm deciding what to do with myself.' He paused, as if struck. 'Is it OK for me to stay here with Dad? It's not in contravention of the landlord's rules, is it? It's just for a while.'

Blowing on her coffee, she tried to sound reassuring, but felt duplicitous. 'I can't remember, to be honest with you. We have a standard assured shorthold tenancy agreement, there might be a clause that states Mr. Leblond should give me the opportunity to veto any long term guests or co-tenants.' 'Mr. Leblond' sounded overly formal, but she hardly felt that she knew him, and on the odd occasion they'd communicated he'd always signed himself with his full name.

'Oh. Right.' Caleb pulled a conspiratorial face. 'I don't want to screw things up for Dad, I'll push off to Mum's if I have to.' So whoever Caleb's mother was, Adam Leblond didn't live with her.

Caleb reminded her of Kieran. She felt her lips curve into a small smile. That gangly, young man friendliness, the easy grin, the air of finding everything doable. 'It doesn't matter now. As long as the house has been looked after.'

He waved a dismissive hand. 'Oh sure, you know what Dad's like.'

'Not really. A friend arranged the tenancy while I lived abroad.'

His eyes lit up. 'Where have you been? I've just done my gap, Thailand, Cambodia and Australia. Dad had kittens if I didn't e-mail for a couple of days while I was in Cambodia. Isn't Australia so cool?
So
cool.' He began to bombard her with stories about hostels and working in kitchens to pay his way, employing the vocabulary of his generation,
cool, crazy, wicked
. She wondered whether to tell him that she'd been around his age in the early seventies, when the same words had peppered her conversation. She kept waiting for him to throw in
groovy
or
fab
, to talk about living on a kibbutz, the icon of freedom in her late teens.

They were interrupted by the rapid rhythm of feet descending the stairs.

Caleb vacated his seat. 'Here's Dad.'

Adam Leblond jumped the final two steps and swung along the hall. He looked as if he'd come fresh from the shower, his hair combed damply back from a face pink from shaving. Brows drawn into straight lines, he looked as if he was always squinting into the distance. He was wirier than she remembered, quick of movement, flesh taut over his jaw and cheek bones. He wore a plain black T-shirt tucked into black trousers.

Caleb passed him in the doorway, carrying his toast with him. 'See you later.'

After a flash of a smile in his son's direction, Adam Leblond looked at Judith and frowned. 'Sorry, I was reading in bed.' His eyes were piercing, alive. He wasn't fat, his hair receded a bit at either side at the front. Faint diagonal lines on his forehead cut across horizontal ones when he frowned.

'It's me who should apologise. I should've phoned and made an appointment. I'm Judith McAllister.' It wasn't worth reminding him that she had been Judith Morgan, in the fifth year when he'd been in the upper sixth. If he'd ever known her name, he would surely have forgotten by now. Automatically, she extended her hand.

He recoiled. Hesitated. Then withdrew his right hand abruptly from his pocket, displayed it for an instant before shoving it back. 'I don't, really.' He half-smiled.

'Oh...!' Her heart hopped in shock at the glimpse of a hand with pink flesh closing over where his first three fingers ought to have been, a yawning gap between his little finger and thumb. Oh, poor Adam! She flushed hotly that she'd embarrassed him with her attempt to shake hands. 'Sorry. I didn't know - '

Compassion for her discomfort flickered in his eyes, darker grey than his son's, one corner of his mouth lifting. 'It's relatively recent. Are you here to inspect the house?'

'Not really.'

He leaned back against the door jamb. 'It's OK if you want to. I expect Caleb's room's a tip, but it's just clothes on the floor and stuff.'

Caleb returned briefly into view, moving from the front room to the stairs, four compact discs clamped in his hand. 'You were supposed to inform her that I was living here, Dad.'

'Oh!' Adam Leblond flushed. 'It didn't occur to me! It's only Caleb, he's my son, a guest - '

'I'm not really concerned.'

'It's an oversight, it's not as if I'm sub-letting.'

'It doesn't matter, now.' Her face felt hotter and hotter. All they'd done so far was to make one another awkward, one apology countered with another. His obvious concern for his responsibilities as a tenant made her feel sheepish. She was here to chuck him out of his home, for God's sake. A deep breath. 'Could we sit down?'

'Of course. In here.' He led her into a relaxing room of subtle colours. Her grey-blue carpet was still on the floor, but he'd added inky damask curtains, a charcoal suite and ivory wallpaper. Everything in the room was functional; no occasional tables or ornaments cluttered the gaps. An Apple Mac computer, large, brand-new and what was customarily referred to as state-of-the-art, was hooked up in the same alcove where she used to have her rather more elderly PC.

Despite its sparsity the room was welcoming, lived in. A neat pile of glossy magazines stood on the floor beside one chair, and two empty beer cans beside the other. 'Caleb,' he explained, as he gathered the cans into his left hand. 'I'm sorry. You've caught me on the hop.'

She flushed anew. 'I shouldn't have called unannounced. But I came home yesterday, and I need to discuss something with you.'

His tidying ceased. He straightened. Bright eyes suddenly wary. 'You come home yesterday, you call on your tenant today? Sounds like a problem.' They gazed at each other.

His lightning perception forced her into a blunter approach than she'd prepared for, but she made herself hold his grey gaze, speak calmly. 'I'm afraid so.' Fumbling, she extracted the envelope with his name on from her bag, and held it in both hands. 'This is probably not what you want to hear, but I must give you notice. I shall need my house back.' Her throat was dry.

Slowly, he took the envelope, and opened it awkwardly, holding it in his left hand while he slit the flap with the remaining finger on his right. Read the letter in silence. Folded the page up and studied her. 'So I get two months? Two calendar months from today.'

Wishing the news hadn't made him look so bleak, Judith shifted in her chair. If she hadn't been hoping to get him out without full notice, she would have sent the letter by registered post and been spared this interview. She cleared her throat. 'To be honest - well, I'd really like you out sooner. If possible. I could offer an incentive - '

He laughed, grimly. 'I've nowhere to go.'

She pushed back her hair. It was annoying her. 'Neither have I. And it's my house. I'm afraid I need it back.'

He nodded, sinking into the armchair with the magazines beside it, and regarded her narrowly. 'But under the tenancy agreement I have two months.'

'Yes, you do. But you haven't precisely been sticking to the tenancy agreement, have you?' She glanced up, from where thumping rock music was filtering through the ceiling.

He did that half-smile again. It gathered the corners of his eyes into laughter lines and cut grooves at the sides of his mouth. It didn't seem to mean that he was finding things particularly funny. 'I don't think a court would grant you early possession because I had my son to stay for a few weeks.'

Court. She wouldn't take such a trivial matter to court, and he knew it. 'I suppose not.'

A silence. He frowned, pulling his bottom lip and gazing at the street outside. 'The thing is, Mrs. McAllister,' he began, slowly. 'The thing is that I've been having an awkward time. I had an accident, and my marriage broke down. My wife got the house. The woman always gets the house, doesn't she? I hate solicitors and all the nasty procedure of trying to shoehorn the opposite party out, demanding shares of the equity, her solicitor insisting the dog belongs to her even if the dog thinks it belongs to me. So I left when my wife asked me to, making things easy for her because we have a long history and we're still friends. Foolish of me, on reflection, but I do tend to see myself as the guy who wears the white hat.

BOOK: Uphill All the Way
4.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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