Authors: Sue Moorcroft
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Women's Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Fiction
Unfortunately, in the 70s it had been acceptable to demolish three streets of Victorian architecture and replace them with an enormous block of brown brick and dirty glass. The Norbury Centre, a development Judith had never cared for. It looked like something a five-year-old might make from Lego if Lego made only mud-brown bricks and long, narrow wired-glass windows. But now that the council had paved Market Square and the pedestrian arcade, installing olde worlde black lampposts that were handy for hanging baskets of vermilion petunias, the blemish of The Norbury was less conspicuous.
England, on the whole, she found a bit moist, but there were lovely days, too, with sunshine that caressed. In Malta in the height of the summer the sunshine felt like being hit with a sheet of hot metal.
But it was odd and uncomfortable living with her sister and brother-in-law who, she sometimes suspected, only made the effort to converse when there was a witness. She spent most evenings reading in her room, which at least gave them their privacy to ignore each other.
In the O'Malley marriage it seemed rigor mortis had set in.
At the end of every day Frankie climbed out of the van with
Francis O'Malley Construction
on the side. Molly prepared a meal for him to come home to, a proper, cooked, two-course dinner from fresh ingredients. Then Frankie retired behind the paper and Molly sat before the television, watching without any change of expression soaps, dramas, reality shows and comedies. How on earth did she share a bed with someone she never spoke to?
Judith got out of the house as much as she could. She visited a hairdresser for fresh highlights - Sparkling Embers, long overdue - and to have her unbearable shagginess cut back into a new low-maintenance feathered style onto her shoulders. She liked it. It swished when she turned. She bought a small car, two years old and bruise-purple, she visited her mother in the care home, twice, taking her out in her new car to a coffee shop with yellow café lace and green gingham curtains.
'You're too thin by half,' declared Wilma Morgan, struggling out of the car and patting her pearly grey perm. 'I can't bear coffee in these places, it's nothing but froth and look at the price of the scones and you only get a dab of jam with them. I wish I knew what really made you come home. You never really
, Judith. Is everything all right with Richard and family? Isn't it about time Richard retired? He might be my baby brother but he's knocking on.' She smiled as Judith offered her arm, her jowls lifting and becoming part of her cheeks. 'I wish you'd brought my wheelchair.'
'You said you wanted to walk.'
'Don't take any notice of me. I can't walk.'
'Piggy back?' Judith turned, and crouched invitingly.
Wilma's chuckle was more of a wheeze. 'Serve you right if I hopped on.'
Judith saw Kieran several times a week, always Bethan by his side. She went to the pub with them - not The Punch, a bit too trendy these days. Just somewhere ordinary and multigenerational like The Prince or The Holly Tree. She asked Bethan's age when Bethan asked for a vodka shot, which made Kieran glare.
'Seventeen.' Bethan pulled at the fronds of two-tone hair around her face.
Judith glanced at Kieran. 'And you're twenty-two.'
'I know that.' He pulled his bottle of strong lager towards him. 'There's no law against it, is there? You don't seem to worry about age gaps in your own relationships.'
She stared down into her cold white wine, and suddenly didn't want it. Put it back on the table.
'Sorry,' he mumbled.
'It's OK. Age gaps are all a question of perspective and...' She fumbled for a word. ' - wisdom.'
He frowned, and she knew he was searching for her meaning and suspecting her disapproval.
When she'd had enough of Kieran and Bethan's in-your-face conducting of their courtship, all those yawning kisses even if she were half-way through a sentence, she stepped out into the late evening purple darkness and left them to it.
It was drizzling. 'Bloody weather,' she muttered, turning up her collar. She was aware that it was foolish to wander the streets late at night on her own. This wasn't Malta where the world and his wife would be strolling in the comfortable evening temperatures along the promenade from Sliema to Spinola, without any sensation of threat. This was Brinham, which had its bad areas like most towns, and a sensible British personal safety code must be followed. It didn't pay to wander back streets with a handbag on show, late at night, alone.
Her phone beeped, and she fished it from her pocket.
A text message from Richard.
Must speak, can u get 2 landline?
She stared. It would be nearly midnight already in Malta. She returned,
Will be @ Molly's house 30 mins.
And turned back towards the taxi rank.
Molly had gone to bed.
Frankie was asleep in his chair, paper collapsed on his lap, glasses skewed, mouth open.
The house was still, dark except for a small reading lamp reflecting shinily on Frankie's head, and a long-life bulb that lit the stairs. Creeping quietly, Judith took the cordless phone from its stand in the hall to her room. The instant it rang, she depressed the key to ensure the others weren't disturbed.
Richard's voice filled her head, warm, friendly, reminding her sharply of Malta, the office, Erminia, her cousins. She pictured him at home with the doors and windows open to the night, stroking his smart little moustache, his feet bare on the tiles, Erminia reading a magazine in the background from the light of a lamp with a pink tasselled shade. 'Molly said you were out with Kieran; sorry to have to bring you home early.'
'No problem. What's up?'
'Business.' He sighed. 'Are you alone?'
She gripped the handset more tightly. 'Yes.' She could hear a tremor in her voice.
'It's bad news.' Another sigh. 'It's just that... well, Sliema Z Bus Tours have gone bust.'
Bust. She examined the word. Bust? Bust. She couldn't, for a moment, see its relevance to Sliema Z Bus Tours. Or, of course, she
. But it couldn't be that.
would be too terrible.
Her mouth went numb. She fought to remain calm. 'What's happened?'
'I wrote to the directors advising them that you wished to sell your shares, and offering them the option, as we agreed. What I got back was a notice about insolvency, and the address of the Liquidator.'
'Oh my God,' she breathed.
'I didn't bother you at that stage, because I thought it was simply a mistake. It couldn't be insolvency, obviously. Probably something to do with structure, you know, because of Giorgio not being able to administer his own affairs. A technicality.'
His voice began to echo in her ears. 'But it isn't?'
'No.' A hesitation. 'A notice was among the mail at your apartment. They're in liquidation.'
Blood thundered. Disbelief coloured her words. 'That's ridiculous! Stupid! They're not in liquidation, I invested thirty thousand liri, they're negotiating to buy new buses. If they were in trouble they would've cancelled the expansion and simply used the money to trade out of their difficulties - '
Wordlessly, she wiped sweat from her top lip and the base of her throat.
'Your money's gone. I've had a long talk with Anton and Gordon. I've been with them all evening. After you, and other private investors, took shares in exchange for investment to fund the planned expansion, one of their drivers caused a fatal road accident. The company's insurance had lapsed.'
Judith closed her eyes, very tightly. 'That can't have taken all the money?'
Richard's voice was gentle. 'More than. The Liquidator's selling the bits and pieces they owned, but the premises were rented and the other vehicles were leased. You know how these things are arranged. The Liquidator is making his usual enquiries about directorial negligence.'
'Because the business is insolvent?'
'It's a complete house of cards. I'm sorry, Judith.' A long silence. A slow breath, then he added, in a rush, 'Anton says Giorgio was responsible for insurance matters.'
'I wish I could offer to return the money you invested in Richard Morgan Estate, but I don't think it's on at the moment.' Richard Morgan Estate had bought into a new hotel development, a small one. And they'd been so bloody excited to be involved. And tie up their capital.
She scarcely slept. By early morning she was pacing the misty streets of Brinham, hoping the sun would burn the dampness off soon.
A massive heave of sadness, her eyes boiling at the memory of the hospital, the tubes and beeping machines.
Cass had been right. How much better for her final memory to be Giorgio smiling, laughing, plunging his unbroken body into the sea, spending a raucous day on a fishing boat with his mates, drinking golden Cisk beer or bitter black espresso, eating unpeeled, sun-dried figs,
. Swaying with the movement of an impressive, modern, air-conditioned coach, eyes sparkling and hands gesticulating, captivating his passengers with tales of village festas, bareback donkey races, parades and
or folk singers. Ushering the tourists around ancient cities built of stone, catacombs and prehistoric temples, old film sets and bustling markets.
Had he realised then how close disaster loomed?
The impression Sliema Z Bus Tours gave was certainly one of prosperity, with the shiny cream coaches with rainbows on the side and an itinerary bursting with fun, history and culture. It didn't look, as Richard termed it, a house of cards, which one bit of mismanagement would send fluttering to the ground.
Had Giorgio known?
Surely he'd been comfortable that she'd see her investment again? That his seeking of private venture capital was legitimate? It must have been oversight or false economy that led to the vital insurance policy being allowed to lapse. She was fiercely certain it wasn't shady commerce.
Giorgio wouldn't have done that to her!
But, whichever, it had left her high and dry and she could hardly challenge him about it now.
There would be about two thousand pounds to come from the sale of her car, and although she had Adam Leblond's rent, she had to allow for council tax, insurance etc out of it. It wasn't exactly an income.
Living for free at her sister's house could scarcely continue, she was the kind who felt an overwhelming need to pay her way. And at such time as she got her own house back she'd have electricity bills, gas, water, food... She sighed.
She'd have to damned well get a job.
And before too much longer.
Her feet took her into town where the market traders were setting up stalls and the butcher optimistically winding out his canopy to shade his window display from sunshine. A postman pushed a pram-like mail carrier up the street, pausing to force packets of letters through letter flaps set low in shop doors. Paperboys cycled on the pavement with baseball caps far back on heads of tightly cut hair, people hurried to work or sauntered to the newsagent.
Judith crossed Market Square into High Street. What kind of job should she be looking for? Before she went to Malta she'd worked long hours for big construction companies on sites like muddy, rumbling, cities. But she didn't want to go back to that, all the regs and permissions and head-in-the-clouds architects. The awful headaches of large projects. Things had changed, she'd have to get her head around updates and new conventions for things like glazing and insulation. And she'd have to overcome that male dominated world all over again.
Girly, possibly, but she just couldn't hack it at the moment, too much pressure for someone whose emotions were all over the place.
A decent part-time job should be enough.
But something interesting. Not a shop, not a bank, not a big bland office, not a call centre, not a pub...
She blinked herself out of her list of negatives. Tom stood across the High Street, shoulders hunched, a navy baseball cap pulled over his eyes. He waited for the lights to stop the traffic, then crossed to her pavement.
She regarded him with misgivings. She was
in the mood for more of Tom's grumpiness - 'being in a mardy', as the local slang would have it.
But today Tom seemed quite genial. 'Fancy a cuppa? There's a new caff up here, Hannah's Pantry, and they do a beautiful brew.'
Others were already enjoying the fruits of Hannah's Pantry. It was panelled out in pine and served tea and coffee in mugs, with milk from a jug and sugar from a bowl and luscious homemade cakes from a glassed-in counter. The staff members were young, probably sixth formers, with one bulky woman - Hannah - in charge.
'Mornin' Tom.' Hannah reached around her chest to pop toast from an enormous chrome toaster.