The Highgate house is set back rather grandly from the street: gravel, gateposts, the humped suggestion of a shrubbery. A dingy pile of old snow is lying in the lee of the garden wall, evidently out of reach of the winter sun on the rare occasions when it might appear; otherwise little sign of it is left in the front garden, and the wide front steps have been scraped clear of ice. Apart from the glow of the stained-glass fanlight—smoky-purple grapes spilling forth from a golden horn—the house is dark. It’s five o’clock, teatime, but could just as well be midnight.
A security light clicks on as I walk up the steps and press the bell, but I hear nothing: no chime, no footfall. I was nervous enough about this meeting to start with, and now, before I’ve even gone inside, I’m feeling caught out, on the hop.
Perhaps I didn’t press the bell hard enough? Perhaps it’s broken?
I wait another few seconds, just to see whether anyone’s coming, then press it again, firmly this time, though with a similar result. A moment passes, then I hear the sound of light footsteps, followed by the snap of the lock. A trim-looking, young woman in a zippered fleece and knee-length corduroy skirt opens the door.
“Frances,” she says, clasping my hand and looking me squarely in the face, an onslaught of sincerity. “I’m Kate Wiggins. The family’s downstairs.”
In the hall, I take off my scarf and jacket. There’s a worn scarlet rug underfoot, Turkish, by the look of it. A tall pot of umbrellas and cricket bats. A rack of Wellingtons and shoes and hiking boots. A wall of coats, slumped there like so many turned backs.
The air is full of scent: flowers, the creamy sweetness of their fragrance. A bowl of hyacinths is on the hall table, next to the spill of unopened post, and as we walk down the corridor, I look off into the shadowy reception rooms on either side and see containers filled with roses, lilies, irises, freesias, mostly white and still bound in luxurious cellophane ruffs and curls of ribbon.
The staircase at the end of the hall curves down into the open-plan kitchen: a judicious combination of heritage (flagstones, butler’s sink, Aga, a dresser stacked with Cornishware) and contemporary (forensic lighting, a stainless-steel fridge the size of a Victorian wardrobe). More flowers are crammed into jars and jugs along the bookshelves and the windowsills and the oak refectory table, around which three people are sitting. A fourth figure, a girl, stands at the French windows, a cat angling around her ankles. As I descend, the girl glances away from the back garden, the golden rectangles of light falling on the preserved fragments of snow, and fastens her pale eyes on me. It’s a desperate sort of scrutiny. It makes me feel even more self-conscious. Carefully, I look down and watch my feet moving over the last few stairs.
“Laurence Kyte,” he says, rising from the table and coming towards me. “Thanks for agreeing to see us. Can I call you Frances?”
I take his hand. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I say.
He swallows. The cheap remark is fresh, still a shock, for him. Seeing his vulnerability, I feel a strange tremor of excitement. This man I know from the half-page reviews and the diary pages and the guest slots on Newsnight, with his authority and remorseless judgments, is standing here before me, shouldering his grief, bowed down by it. I have something he wants, I think, with a prickle of possibility. I wonder if I can give it to him. “Thank you,” he says. “These are my children, Edward and Polly.”
Edward is midtwenties, tall, fair, slight-looking, and his greeting is noncommittal, courteous but impersonal. Polly, a few years younger, comes away from the French windows towards me, and as we shake hands, she twists her mouth to stop herself from crying. Her narrow, white face is blotchy with old tears.
She looks like a little mouse, I think. I squeeze her hand. “I’m Frances,” I say.
“And this is Charlotte Black,” Laurence Kyte says, indicating the third person at the table, a woman in her fifties. Plain, dark clothes, the sort that cost serious money, a heavy silver cuff on her wrist. “A friend of the family.”
Of course I know of Charlotte Black, Kyte’s agent. She has quite a reputation.
Kate Wiggins has been standing back, letting us get on with it. Now, in her supportive administrative role, she offers me a cup of tea or coffee. I feel too nervous to have a preference. “Water’s fine,” I say.
“Well, I’m having a glass of wine,” says Laurence. “I think we can probably all agree this situation calls for a drink.”
He locates a particular bottle of red in the rack under the counter and brings the glasses to the table. While he’s doing this, his children are taking their seats at it, side by side, not looking at each other. They are dreading this, I think. They want to know, but they’re scared of what I might tell them.
Charlotte, at the end of the table, smiles reassuringly at me. “Kate was saying you don’t live far away?”
“Down the hill,” I say. “No, not far at all.” Of course, my part of north London, maybe a mile off, is quite a contrast to this one, as it’s dominated by arterial roads, betting shops, and the empty midrise office blocks which no tenants can be persuaded to occupy. The Kytes live in a very different London. Their neighbourhood is a sequence of broad, moneyed avenues running between green spaces—various woods and parks, the Heath—and what the locals call “the village,” a high street full of coffee shops, estate agents, and boutiques selling organic face creams and French children’s wear.
Laurence uncorks the bottle and starts to pour. Kate Wiggins shakes her head when he looks at her, but everyone else accepts a glass. Finally, we’re all sitting at the table, ready. I hold the glass in my hand. It’s a solid, simple goblet. Danish, I expect. When I taste the wine, I try to concentrate on it, but I’m really a bit too on edge, waiting to see how the Kytes want to play this.
Let them set the pace, Wiggins had suggested. They’ll let you know what they need to know. And if you can’t answer their questions, just say so. I put my glass down and fold my hands in my lap. The table vibrates slightly: Edward, jiggling his foot, betraying his nerves. To my surprise, he speaks first.
“We wanted to meet you to tell you how grateful we are,” he begins, as if he’s finally delivering a speech which he has privately rehearsed many times. “We’ve been taken through your statement, and it has been a real comfort to know that Mum wasn’t on her own at the end. That she had someone to talk to . . . someone who could talk to her.”
Polly looks up, her eyes blurring, and asks in a burst, “Can you tell us what she said? We know what you told the police, but . . . did she sound like herself?”
Kate Wiggins says, “Polly, I’m not sure whether Frances can—” and then I interrupt her, with a firmness I don’t feel, and I say, “We talked. She was quite . . . together. She wasn’t in distress, or at least if she was, she controlled it. You know I couldn’t see her?”
For some reason, I want them all to be reminded of this. Polly nods, her pale eyes fixed on me.
I glance around the table. Everyone seems to be waiting for something—for me to continue, I realise. I have everyone’s absolute attention. It’s an alarming feeling, but not altogether disagreeable.
“It was very dark,” I say, my voice sounding small in that huge white space. “And because of that and the position of the car, I couldn’t see how injured she was. I didn’t know. She told me she might have hurt her legs, but otherwise she seemed okay. She didn’t seem to be in pain. She said she’d come off the road avoiding a fox. She talked about living nearby, she mentioned the car had recently been cleaned.”
At the edge of my vision, I see Laurence suddenly drop his head, staring down at his hands, processing this reminder of a previous life.
“Yes,” I say, as if it’s all coming back to me, “She cracked a sort of joke about how her husband—you—had just had the car cleaned.”
Polly makes a noise at this point: part laugh, part sob. Her cuff winking in the light, Charlotte Black pushes the box of tissues across the table and reaches out to catch hold of Polly’s fingers.
“She thanked me for keeping her company. I remember thinking what a dignified sort of person she seemed.” As a matter of fact, this thought had crossed my mind only subsequently, reading over my statement with O’Driscoll, but it’s the sort of thing I imagine they’d like to hear—need to hear, really.
Polly’s really crying now, into a handful of Kleenex. Edward is very still. I leave a little pause, just a tiny beat, and then, because it’s irresistible, I say, “And of course, when I told her I could see the ambulance coming, she said, ‘Tell them I love them.’ ”
As I speak, I feel Wiggins shifting slightly beside me. This wasn’t in the statement.
“Just that,” I say. “ ‘Tell them I love them.’ It was the last thing she said to me.”
I look up, into Laurence’s face, the eye of the storm, and I see him exhale, and as that breath leaves him, his energy seems to leach away with it. He looks more like an old man now, weak and tired, hollow with exhaustion. When he lifts his glass to his lips, his hand is trembling. Charlotte Black presses knuckles to her eyes. I get the feeling she’s startled and embarrassed by her reaction. Edward is staring at the table. The only sound is Polly weeping.
“There’s really nothing else I can tell you,” I say. “I’m sorry, it doesn’t seem very much.”
“Well,” says Laurence finally, “I have no questions. You’ve been very kind, Frances. Very sensitive. Thank you for that, as well as . . .” His voice trails off. Then he looks around, remembering himself, consulting his children, clearing his throat. “Does anyone else want to ask anything?”
The room stays quiet.
“I really wish I could have done more,” I say. Then I have another sip of wine. It’s an intensely dark red which briefly stains the glass when you tilt it. Were I more knowledgeable, perhaps it would taste like the wines I read about in novels and restaurant reviews, which always seem to taste of plums and cherries and cinnamon. I’d quite like to finish it, but this might seem inappropriate, greedy, so I push the glass away with a tiny sigh. Kate Wiggins gives me a discreet nod and starts to ease her chair back from the table. I am being dismissed.
“I should be on my way,” I say. “But if you have any more questions, if I can do anything . . .”
“Won’t you finish your glass? Stay for some supper?” says Polly, her fists full of damp tissues—she has managed to collect herself at last—but I can tell the rest of the family is surprised and slightly disconcerted by her offer. I shake my head and stand up. Charlotte Black says she will see me out, and after a pause, Kate Wiggins gives me a smile of thanks, and then I’m saying good-bye to them all, one by one. When I come to Polly, I put my hand on her sleeve and apply just a little pressure and I make sure our eyes meet while I say, “Take care, won’t you?” and then I follow Charlotte back up the stairs.
“What wonderful flowers,” I say, as we walk down the corridor, back towards the front door.
“They keep coming—even this long after the funeral,” Charlotte says. “People are so incredibly kind, but it’s almost too much, there are no more vases, we’ve had to put them in ice buckets, and all the sinks are full of them. Alys loved flowers. You know about her garden at Biddenbrooke? Oh, it’s quite famous. You should see it in June. All white flowers, of course.”
She watches me while I put on my jacket and scarf. “Wait a minute,” she says. Then she goes into one of the rooms, and when she comes back out, she has a big hand-tied bouquet in her arms: creamy roses and ranunculus trussed up in thick, rustling layers of tissue paper, purple and sober dove-grey.
“They won’t miss them,” she says. “Take them, for heaven’s sake. Alys would have hated those flowers to just sit there in a dark room, not being looked at. Honestly, it’s fine, no one minds. Take them.”
I walk back through the slippery streets holding the flowers, the white petals cool and firm when they brush against my cheek; and although my hands are soon numb with cold from the wet stems, I find myself enjoying the conspicuous beauty of my trophy, the glances it attracts and the alternative life it seems to suggest.
In the flat, I remove the tissue paper and cellophane and discover the little note tucked inside, which I realise is from the controller of Radio 4 and her husband (To Laurence, Teddy, and Pol. All our sympathy and best love), and then I trim the stems and put the arrangement in my bedroom, so I can drift in and out of the scent as I sleep.
A week or so later, as the petals begin to tumble off in milky clusters, I find an envelope waiting in my pigeonhole when I get home from work. A stiff white card inside, the scratch of a fountain pen, the pulse of blue-black ink. It’s from Polly, inviting me to the memorial service in a month’s time. We would be so glad to see you if you felt like coming, she writes. Beneath her name, three quick, automatic kisses: XXX. I put the note on the mantelpiece, and when I mention it to Hester, I say I haven’t decided whether to go or not. Of course, this isn’t strictly true.
I sit at the back of the church, which is spectacularly full. It’s an expensive crowd: plenty of familiar faces behind the outsize shades. I see Mary Pym several pews in front, leaning over to greet a playwright; one entire row is occupied by senior representatives from McCaskill, Laurence Kyte’s publisher. As well as some distinguished actors and academics and a few cabinet ministers, there’s a healthy showing from his old Soho cohort, the poets and raffish literary hacks he ran with after Oxford (he still plays tennis with Malcolm Azaria and Nikolai Titov at weekends, according to the cuts I’ve been browsing online).
Kate Wiggins, in a tidy jacket and shiny heels, comes over to say a quiet hello before the service starts. “I wondered if you’d be here,” she says. “Polly asked for your details, I hope it was okay to give them to her.”
Of course, I say. She’s on the point of saying something else—possibly a reference to the little extra that I dropped into the discussion in the Kytes’ kitchen? Most likely she’s forgotten all about it—when there’s a general fluttering as people reach in unison for their orders of service. She murmurs, “I’ll see you later,” and returns to her seat.
Yes, Laurence and his children are entering the church, coming down the aisle. Edward—Teddy—is erect and inscrutable, wearing a defensive social polish which allows him to smile at people in the congregation, but Polly, drooping in black, reminds me of a bird in the rain. A fragile-looking elderly lady whom I take to be Alys’s mother walks with them, clasping Laurence’s arm. He has lost some weight, I think.
We stand to sing “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” Initially this trawlerman’s hymn strikes me as a strange choice, but as we work through the verses, its vision of the tin-pot vulnerability of human existence seems increasingly fitting.
All around me, people are fumbling in pockets and bags for tissues.
Teddy, composed, reads a poem by Christina Rossetti. A middle-aged woman—an old schoolfriend? A neighbour from Biddenbrooke?—rushes through a passage from one of Vita Sackville-West’s gardening columns and then sits down, blowing her nose. A tenor sings a song by Peter Warlock.
Then Malcolm Azaria, bearish and grizzled in a black moleskin suit going grey at the knees, delivers the eulogy.
He speaks with tremendous warmth and affection, but without attempting to disguise Alys’s quirks and flaws. If anything, he draws our attention to them. In doing so he conjures up Alys as a vivid presence where previously I’ve found only an absence.
I listen, holding my breath, as he talks about first hearing about her one evening at the French House, shortly after she’d arrived at art school from Salisbury. “We were all very down on Alys,” he says, with a dry, little cough of amusement. “We thought she must be some ghastly Lorelei, come to steal Laurence away from us. And that belief flourished until we actually met her. And then we all, without exception, fell in love with her.”
As Azaria speaks, she’s coming into view: her enthusiasms, her eccentricities, her weaknesses. Someone with an eye for beauty and for the absurd; a dreamy sort of person, given to absentmindedness, always generating (“along with damson jam and those famous mountains of meringues we enjoyed beneath the apple trees at Biddenbrooke”) a certain carnival atmosphere of chaos. There’s an amused, affectionate rumble of recognition as he talks about the lost passports, the missed trains, the Sunday lunches eaten in the very late afternoon.
“And yet she never forgot the truly important things,” he says, raising a finger. “When you got a terrible review, Alys was always the first person on the phone—the only person you could face speaking to—to suggest a long walk, a bottle of claret, or a light spot of firebombing.”
Briefly, he describes her occasional fits of melancholy: “Her extraordinary talent for happiness was not always best served by the world around her.” He talks at more length about the most reliable sources of that happiness: the pleasure she took in her garden, her children, and her partnership with her husband. “Other people’s marriages are invariably a mystery to outsiders,” he says. “But this one, you always felt, was the best sort of mystery, with secret caves and smugglers and Gypsy caravans and a proper high tea at the end of it.” He stops to let the muted, grateful laughter subside, gestures clumsily towards the front row, and says, “Truly, Laurence, Teddy, Polly—our hearts go out to you.” Then, quickly, he steps down and returns to his seat.
I see Laurence leaning over to thank him, putting a hand out to touch his.
After the service, the crowd ebbs gradually out of the church, small groups forming and breaking off during the procession towards the Kytes’ house: middle-aged couples, gangs of tall, tearful-looking girls, an elderly lady with a guide dog. It’s a blustery early-spring day: the wind whipping through the trees in the Grove, patches of blue coming and going like little shocks in the sky. The tension is easing. People are kissing each other in greeting, and smiling. There’s the relieved sense that everyone has been through an ordeal, and that a stiff drink is not too far off.
I see Azaria and Paul Crewe pausing by the small stone cross to light their cigarettes, deep in discussion with Charlotte Black and a younger woman whose black tangle of hair is streaked with a badger flash of white at the temple. Then a sudden squall of rain hits, and the group moves off in a hurry, pulling jackets and scarves over heads, hastening along in the usual inelegant manner.
I’ve stopped under some trees and am waiting there, warily looking up at the sky, when I hear someone calling my name.
“Frances,” says Polly, bringing her umbrella over my head. “I hoped I’d see you. You are coming back to the house, aren’t you?” I get the feeling that she hasn’t any tears left for today, and free of the blotches and the red-rimmed eyes, she is really rather pretty, in a silvery, insubstantial fashion.
We walk on together, in the dark intimacy of the umbrella’s shelter. At first, we keep bumping into each other, falling out of step, until she nudges my arm with hers and says, “Hook in, will you?” After that, it’s much easier.
I say how good the service was, how affecting I found Malcolm Azaria’s address.
“Oh, yes,” says Polly. “Malcolm always knows what to say. He’s one of Dad’s oldest friends, you know. He and his wife, Jo—she’s the one in the turquoise coat—have been very good to us since Mum died. Keeping an eye on Dad, popping round, taking him out to lunch, that sort of thing. Making sure he’s okay.”
“And . . . how is he?”
“Mmm,” says Polly with a shrug, a little gesture of grief and bafflement. “It’s hard to say, really. He gets up, goes for walks, picks up books from the bookshop, goes into his study, comes out for meals. I don’t think he’s writing anything yet, and I think that’s worrying him. Personally, I think it’s far too soon for anything like that. But what do I know.”
“And what about you?” I ask, as we turn into the Kytes’ street.
“Me? Oh, okay. You know.”
“No, I don’t,” I say. “I don’t know anything about you.”
This isn’t true, of course. From my online research (from various profiles of her father, from her slack Facebook privacy settings, and her Twitter feed) I know that she’s nineteen and at drama college, not a topflight one, but a decent one nonetheless. I know that she went to a London girls’ school until sixteen, and then to an arty liberal boarding school where she fell in with people called things like Tabitha and Inigo. I know she spent her year off teaching in South Africa and interning in an administrative capacity at the National Theatre. I know she has just split up with a BBC trainee called Sandeev.
Polly stops and stares at me. “No. No, of course you don’t. It’s ridiculous, but somehow I feel as if you know everything already.”
She tucks my arm back into hers and starts to walk again. The shoes I bought for the occasion are soaking up the rain; it’s hard to navigate puddles when you’re being marched along like this. I feel as if I’m being swept up by the sheer force of her personality.
“It’s pretty shit, I guess,” she says, as lightly as she can manage. “People tell me it takes a long time to get used to something like this, let alone get over it. . . . As if that will ever happen. Some mornings I wake up feeling okay about stuff, and then there’s this horrible moment when I remember. It’s like falling.” Her voice trails off.
“I think about her all the time,” she says bleakly, eventually. “Wish I could tell her stuff. Ask her things.”
We’re going up the drive now. The gravel skitters away under our feet. As we come up the steps into the warmth, we’re met by a man in a white jacket who takes our coats and the umbrella and retreats with them into one of the rooms off the corridor. A tray of glasses is set out on the hall table. Polly takes a flute of champagne. “Really?” she says disbelievingly when I choose orange juice.
A group of people comes into the hall behind us in a burst of wind and raindrops. Mary Pym is among them, her hair slightly coarsened by the weather. She starts to prink in the hall mirror, then catches sight of me over her shoulder.
“Oh!” she says, turning around. “Frances! What a surprise to see you here.”
I smile at her politely as Polly pulls at my sleeve. “Come on,” she urges, bored by the new arrivals. “I’ve got to get something from my room, it won’t take a minute.”
“See you later,” I say to Mary as I follow Polly’s slender, little figure up the oatmeal-coloured stairs.
We ascend, passing on the half landing a door, just ajar, permitting a glimpse of Laurence’s study: a bright, barely furnished room, a dinosaur of an old Mac on a trestle table, an ugly office chair, white blinds at the window, walls lined with books, with more piled along the skirting.
Up again, past the jumbled tilting frames of old Private Eye cartoons and Ravilious prints and artwork for various novels in French and German translations, past a bathroom with a rolltop bath, a snatched impression of an airing cupboard luxuriously stashed with fat, white towels, past a shut door—the master bedroom?—and on, as the staircase narrows, up to the top floor, illuminated by an enormous rooflight smeared with drizzle.
Polly’s room is painted robin’s-egg blue. A string of chilli-pepper fairy lights is looped around the barley-sugar twists of her white bed. There’s a poster for a Théâtre de Complicité show tacked to a pinboard, along with some curling strips of Photo-Mes, old Glastonbury and Latitude passes, and a handful of postcards: Botticellis, a Tracey Emin sketch of a shoe, one of Sargent’s self-possessed socialites, leaning back complacently against some upholstery.
She closes the door and takes a packet of Camels out of the chest of drawers. Then she pushes open the window, letting in the cold, drags a knitted throw off her bed and over her shoulders, and sits down on the ledge. “Want one?” she asks, waving the packet towards me. I shake my head.
“Do you still live here?” I say, idly moving to her dressing table, my eyes quickly going to the framed photograph standing there among the little tubs and bottles, the dishes of hair clips and scented erasers and novelty lip balms, the detritus of a childhood which she is evidently not ready to leave behind quite yet.
So she says no, she’s living in Fulham with a friend from school. She tells me about drama college, how she wanted nothing more than to get in, and now she’s actually there, it’s a bit of a disappointment, frankly. Since Alys died, it seems, she hasn’t really been turning up much. Her course tutor phoned her last week, and she had to agree to go in and see him next Tuesday. “Fucker better cut me some slack,” she says, breathing a steady plume of smoke into the wet trees.
All the time, while I’m making little sounds of agreement and sympathy, I’m examining the photograph on the dresser. Alys is sitting on a shingly beach, wearing flip-flops and a sunshine-yellow sundress, her hair blowing over her face. Strong, square shoulders, swimmer’s shoulders. Her mouth is opening as if she’s about to say something funny to the photographer.
Where Laurence is dark, she is fair: the silvery sort of fairness that Polly has inherited. The sort of fairness that makes me think of birch woods.
So there you are, I think, meeting Alys’s gaze. There you are.
Polly taps her ash into the window box and sips her drink. Now she’s telling me about Sandeev. She dumped him before Christmas, she explains, and of course I sit tight and nod, even though I know, from the commiserating comments on Facebook, that it didn’t happen quite like that.
It was the right thing to do, she says, sighing, it wasn’t going anywhere, and they haven’t seen each other since the split, but he rang when he heard the news—he was incredibly upset, he and Alys always got on like a house on fire—and he might be coming today. He couldn’t make the memorial because he was on shift, but he said he’d come afterwards if he could.
Polly’s young, of course; and on top of that she has the performer’s transparent and somehow rather tawdry desire for attention. She is entirely at ease talking about herself, as if it’s her birthright to be heard. That’s good. She has hardly noticed how uneven the conversation is. That’s good, too.
Her cheeks hollowing effortfully, she takes a final drag, pings the butt out into the street, and pulls the sash window down with a clatter. “I like being with you,” she says slowly, as if the thought is just occurring to her. “Everyone else seems to want to tell me how I should be feeling—‘You’re feeling guilty because you always gave her the runaround,’ ‘You’re feeling lost because she kept you on the straight and narrow,’ blah blah fucking blah—but you don’t do that.”
“Anytime,” I say. “Really, Polly, I’m always here if you want to talk. I hope you’ll remember that.”
“Mmm,” she says. She’s at the dressing table, rooting around for a tube of mascara. “Didn’t bother before the church,” she says, holding still, raptly intent on her reflection. “Didn’t want panda eyes. I think I’ll be all right now.” She pokes the wand back into the tube, sprays some scent into the air, steps into the cloud of vapour, then moves to the door. The room is full of cigarette smoke and tuberose. “Shall we?” she says.
Jolly knots of people are exchanging gossip in the hall; they break off respectfully when they see Polly coming down the stairs. Murmuring apologies, a woman edges past us, shouldering her way into her coat, and as she goes, I notice the pallor of her face, the white flash at her temple.
In the kitchen, waiters are manoeuvring themselves through the crowd with polite difficulty, offering top-ups and hot, little snacks: angels on horseback, sausages jumbled around bowls of English mustard.
Polly sails off without a farewell, claimed by the Azarias. Fair-weather friend, I think, not at all surprised.
I move through the room without any sense of destination, listening to people talking in low tones about the family, how they’re bearing up, the terrible hole in everyone’s life. “It’s such an appalling shock,” people say, over and over. And, “You never know what’s around the corner.” This may be a literary crowd, but at times like these everyone resorts to the commonplace, I suppose.
Alys’s mother is sitting in a chair by the French windows, with the cat on her lap, talking to Charlotte Black and someone from McCaskill. The garden beyond her, invisible on my first visit, is still in its winter disarray, but is charming nonetheless. A robin, a sequence of tiny clockwork movements, is pecking at something on the brick path which winds down, between the bony-looking fruit trees and the curves of hedges, to a summer-house.
I can imagine the two of them out there in the summer evenings, sitting on the wooden bench, bare feet in the warm grass, faces tilted blindly to the last of the day’s sun.
“Twice a week, rain or shine,” an elderly woman is saying, and I notice the golden Labrador sitting patiently at her feet, the reflective band of the harness. “She had such a lovely voice. So expressive. She did marvellous things with Edith Wharton.”
“Hello,” says Teddy, in passing. “How are you?” But he doesn’t wait for an answer. A pretty girl with a serious expression is waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. When they kiss hello, she puts her hand on his forearm and leaves it there for an extra beat while she comes out with one of those useful sympathetic clichés. I can see that kiss might just be the beginning of something.
She is, I’m fairly sure, someone’s daughter, the child of one of the playwrights or critics around me, mindlessly refuelling on wine and oysters. A family friend.
I watch her—the messy ponytail, the lankiness, the string of plastic beads, the expression on her face—and something’s bugging me. She reminds me of someone. Who is it? It’s almost there, just coming within reach, when Laurence steps backwards, holding an empty glass, and knocks me lightly with an elbow. He swings around, apologising. For a moment he is, I can tell, unable to put a name to my face. I see myself through his eyes: pale, nondescript, as dull as my clothes. No one in particular.
“Frances,” I say helpfully.
“Of course, of course,” he says. Clearly, he didn’t know I was invited. “Good of you to come.”
“I found the service terribly moving,” I say, looking up at him, noting the grey planes under his eyes, the looseness around his collar. “And it was lovely to be able to spend some time with Polly.” Some distance behind him, Mary Pym is cosying up to the host of a radio books show, but I can see her attention has now shifted to Laurence, and to me. I lean forward and say, “Let me get that for you,” and then I dab something—possibly some mustard, possibly a bit of lint—off his sleeve.
“Ah,” he says. “Thanks.”
“I’m afraid I’m due somewhere else,” I say. “I’m late already. I just wanted to make sure I spoke to you, to say how touched I was to be asked. It really means a great deal to me.”
“Well, it’s good that you could make it,” he says, directing his gaze over my shoulder, processing, assessing, wondering—with a certain weariness—how much longer this thing will go on. I step towards him and reach up and kiss him on the cheek and see, from his expression, that this was rather unwelcome, and then I give him a little smile and push away through the crowd towards the stairs.
“Take care, Teddy,” I call, my hand on the newel. He waves vaguely at me, polite in only the baldest sense of the word. The girl doesn’t even look over. He turns back to her. “Oh, Honor, give me a break,” he’s saying. As I start to climb the oatmeal stairs, she says (in the sort of deep, husky, modulated voice that requires, in my experience, some cultivation), “For Christ’s sake, you’ve got to let yourself get used to what’s happened. You should take some time off. Fuck’s sake! They owe you. Plus, in any case, they love you.”
As I wait in the hall for the helpful young man in the white jacket to find my coat, I remember the Sargent postcard, the air of entitlement, the absolutely impermeable confidence, and I think, Ah, yes. That’s it. You remind me of her.
As well as my coat, the helpful young man brings me Polly’s umbrella. It has stopped raining, but I take it anyway.
Most mornings, you hear Mary before you see her. She’s one of those relentlessly, conspicuously busy people. Even the longueurs spent waiting for or in the lift are put to use. When the doors open, releasing her onto the fifth floor, she’s midconversation, talking about her weekend, the weather, the dogs. Her voice carries down the quiet expanse of office carpet, over the banks of angled screens. It’s the sound of long, wet walks on the beaches of north Norfolk, the sound of children boarding at Winchester and Wycombe Abbey, the sound of a holiday home in the Auvergne. I never feel good listening to Mary’s riffs.
Still, this is a work call; she’s speaking to one of her grander contributors. This becomes apparent when she says, “Oh, file when you’re ready, darling. Anytime on Thursday will be fine.” This means copy will arrive late afternoon, just when the pages are due to be sent to the printers. Mary will read it, scribble little queries all over it, and pass it over to me. Then she will depart, smartly, to meet her husband, the corporate lawyer, at a drinks party in Primrose Hill, and I’ll be stuck here for an extra hour or two dealing with the fallout.
My desk is quite near the window, and though I’m meant to be giving Ambrose Pritchett’s latest review a quick read-through, I find my attention keeps wandering from the screen. A pan-lid sky hangs over London. The forecast is for rain. Half-listening to Mary as she emerges from the elevator lobby, I watch the dull silver ribbons of trains flowing in and out of the station, the slow rotation of cranes over distant building sites. Beyond the cloud, beyond the city, a margin of green—the Surrey hills—is startlingly bathed in sunshine.
Turning back to the monitor, I wonder why so few people understand the difference between practise and practice.
Mary arrives at her desk, drops her bag on her chair, and turns to me. She has two cups of coffee in a cardboard holder. “Got one for you,” she says, shouldering off her aubergine wool coat. “Do you want cappuccino or latte?”
“Either’s fine,” I say. In the seven years I’ve worked with Mary, she has never once bought me coffee.
“Good, I’ll have the cappuccino. Croissant?” she adds, passing me a white paper bag. “No, go on, it’s for you.”
“Thanks very much,” I say. From the lettering on the bag, I can see that she stopped by the high-end deli, the one I visit only when I feel I deserve a treat, the one with salami slung festively from overhead beams and big glass jars of amaretti on the counter. I take the lid off my latte and break a horn from the croissant. Buttery flakes shower down on my mouse mat. “I’ve just started working on Ambrose’s review,” I say.
“How is it?”
“Not too bad,” I say, dipping the croissant into my cup. “Oh, Alison Freiberg rang. Can you call her back?”
“Will do.” Mary is unpacking her bag, locating her turquoise diary. She flicks through it, the gold-edged pages rippling luxuriously, and pauses, a pensive look on her face, tapping her teeth with her Montblanc. Then she comes over to my desk and stands at my shoulder. It’s disconcerting. Perhaps she’s going to sack me. Perhaps the croissant was a sop to her conscience. I ignore her and concentrate on the screen, the comfort of the two neat columns of words.
“So, I saw you at Alys Kyte’s memorial service,” she says, as if the memory has only just occurred to her. “You’re a friend of the family’s, are you?”
“Well, I guess you could say that,” I say. I run the cursor over a sentence, highlighting a repetition and then cutting it, so the over-matter shrinks back into the layout. Then I turn my chair around to face her. “It’s really so sad,” I say, picking up my cup, as if we’re going to have a little heart-to-heart. “I don’t think Laurence is dealing with it terribly well, do you? Lost lots of weight. I suppose it’s only to be expected. Polly, though . . . we had a proper chat, I think she’s doing okay, all things considered.”
Mary is looking at me with a strange expression on her face. My God, you’re avid for it, aren’t you? I think. You were only invited to the memorial service in your professional capacity—and there I was, on the other side of the velvet rope. You’re dying to know why and when and how, aren’t you? All those questions—but you can’t quite bring yourself to ask them. Not yet, at any rate. I’ll give you a few days, a few more posh coffees, and maybe I’ll let some more details slip. But you’ll have to work for them.
“Do you know the Kytes well?” I ask innocently, blowing on my coffee and then taking a sip.
Mary widens her eyes behind her expensive narrow spectacles and steps back. “God, no. Hardly at all. No, the invitation came in via Paula at McCaskill, and I thought it was important to represent the paper. Well, of course, I’ve met Laurence on numerous occasions—parties, launches . . . a few years back we judged the Sunderland prize together—but I never met Alys.”
“No . . . she wasn’t keen on parties. She was always better in small groups,” I say, smiling, as if Mary has reminded me of some little memory—something almost painfully intimate. “She was wonderful with the Azarias and the Titovs, and she could keep her end up, but she was never particularly at home with all that. She always seemed happiest pottering around the garden at Biddenbrooke.”
Mary listens, head cocked. I can see her hoovering up the insights—details from an old diary item in the Telegraph which I’d stumbled on during my Internet trawling. That’s enough, I think. Just stop there. I give Mary a sad, little smile, and then I say, “Well, thanks for the coffee. I’d better get on,” and turn back to the screen.
She leaves me alone for the rest of the morning, which is punctuated by the usual landmarks: the arrival of the post, the tea trolley, and Oliver, who sidles in just before eleven, unshaven and wearing what I’d lay money on are yesterday’s clothes. Mary pulls her spectacles low on her nose and gives him a cool look, but says nothing. He has been at his desk for only twenty minutes, talking on the phone in a low, urgent voice and occasionally sniggering, when Sasha from Fashion comes over and they head off for a smoke. At twelve thirty he leaves for a lunch in Covent Garden with some PRs.
I go out to the sandwich bar and buy a roll with some Parma ham, and I’m eating it at my desk, out of a shiny packet of greaseproof paper, flicking through the Guardian, when Mary stops by my chair again. She puts down a proof copy. It’s the new Sunil Ranjan. “Does this interest you?” she asks.
I say I’ve read one or two of his other novels.
“Oh, good, good,” she says. “Six hundred words, a week on Thursday? I was going to get Oliver to do it, but—well, you know.”
I make a discreet, understanding noise, and she pats my shoulder and moves off.
Interesting, I think, picking up my sandwich again. Very interesting.
“So!” says my mother brightly. She’s sitting bolt upright on the tightly upholstered button-back chair, holding a teacup and a petticoat tail, doing her best to look entirely at ease. I’ve been in the house for only ten minutes, and we have already exhausted the drive, the dreadful traffic around Ipswich, and the weather. “How is London? Busy, is it?”
Like so many of my mother’s questions, this one anticipates a particular answer, in which she will take only the most limited interest. Conversation with my mother rarely goes anywhere unexpected. She has a horror of the unexpected and her entire life is structured to keep it at bay.
“Pretty busy, yes,” I say, taking a sip of tea. We look together at the shrubs thrashing around beyond the patio doors. My mother considers herself green-fingered, which simply means she subscribes to a lot of gardening magazines and pays a man to mow the lawn in the summer. She calls him “the gardener.” My dad does all the legwork—digging in the compost, pruning, planting bulbs—under her instruction.
It’s a very tasteful garden. There’s little colour or scent in it—my mother thinks most flowers are vulgar, and she has a deep-seated fear of vulgarity, as if it might suddenly overpower her in a dark alley—but plenty of texture and shapes. At this time of year, as the dusk consolidates, it looks drearier than usual.
“Your father should be back any minute,” my mother says, taking another tiny bite of biscuit and dusting an invisible shower of crumbs off her skirt. At the far end of the house, the dog barks manically.
“How is the dog?” I say. The dog is called Margot, after the ballerina. She’s a Jack Russell, enormously fat and badly behaved. My parents have always had dogs, but by the time they got Margot they’d run out of energy and never found the time to train her properly, so she has to be shut up in the sunroom, like the first Mrs. Rochester, whenever anyone visits.
“Getting on,” says my mother, adjusting the knife-pleat in her skirt. “Poor old thing.”
“Maybe I’ll take her for a walk later,” I suggest, as I always do, for my own amusement. “She could do with it, I expect. Take her over the common, down to the reservoir?”
“Oh, I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” says my mother, as I knew she would, as if I have suggested something terrifically reckless. “Poor old Margot, she gets ever so out of breath nowadays.”
I know the reason why Margot never goes for walks, and it isn’t because of her old age, or her inability to behave herself on the lead, or anything like that. My mother has always been most comfortable on her own territory. Nowadays even minor local expeditions (trips to the seafront with Hester’s children, or the Pearsons’ Boxing Day drinks) make her jittery. She’d never admit it, of course. So there’s always a reason why she can’t come or must leave early, and usually it’s something to do with mass catering. “I’ve got to put the potatoes in,” she’ll say with a tiny smile of martyrdom. “See you back at the house!”
I finish my tea, and as soon as I’ve put the cup back on its saucer, my mother has risen from her chair, whipping them (and the plate of biscuits and the little stack of napkins) off the coffee table, and bustling back to the kitchen, where I hear her carefully rinsing and then arranging the china in the dishwasher, in what is always a very particular formation.
“Why don’t you go and put your things in your room, Frances?” she calls gaily, over the roar of tap water.
I take my bag and climb the stairs. My parents live on the edge of a pretty village, in a comfortable three-bedder built in the seventies: white-painted boards and Cambridge brick, pine panelling in the dining room, bubbled glass in the bathroom door. At the front, the view is of the village green, with its bus shelter and pink-washed pub and occasional uninspired games of cricket. At the back, you look out over the garden and fields of rape and cabbages, and the strange dwindling architecture of pylons processing off into the next county. It’s a flat, uneventful landscape.
My mother has gussied up the room for me, as she always does, as if the gussying up will somehow distract me from the shot springs in the bed, which I’ve had since primary school. It’s like a little stage set, every painstaking detail suggesting gracious living.
The pair of scatter cushions arranged against the pillow. The guest soap, still in its wrapper, laid upon the flannel. Three padded, satin coat hangers fanned out on top of the duvet. The stack of Good Housekeepings and House & Gardens on the bedside table, next to the tray of tea things—minikettle, sugar sachets, UHT thimbles—as if I’m being accommodated in the East Wing, as if the kitchen were half a mile away.
I drop my bag and sit down on the bed, then I reach over and pick up a magazine and flick through it. It’s full of candlemaking, beetroot recipes, charmingly mismatched blue-and-white crockery. There’s a special offer on glass cloches and brooms made in Sweden by the partially sighted. I don’t believe any of it. I put the magazine back with the others, taking care to line up the spines. I don’t want my mother to think I actually looked at them.
All my personality has long since gone from this room. The rosettes and posters and framed class photographs, the joke books and sets of C. S. Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the cushion cover I cross-stitched when I was nine: so many dust traps, all got rid of. The bottom drawer in the little chest contains my A-level and degree certificates, my stamp collection, and a shoebox of old snapshots, and that’s really all that is left of me in the house.
Here in my bedroom, the curtains in the little dormer windows were once yellow with a scarlet-and-orange rickrack trim; now they’re toile de Jouy shepherds and ladies on swings, toes pointed and hat ribbons flying. When did one replace the other? I can’t remember. Was my permission, or even my inclination, sought? I am sure it was not.
There is a rattle from downstairs as my father opens the glazed front door and closes it behind him.
I spread my hands on the duvet cover, feeling the heat trapped in my palms by the polycotton, the light, uneven give of the springs. Then I stand up and unzip my bag and take out my toothpaste and toothbrush, my hairbrush, and the Sunil Ranjan proof copy. Seeing it lying there on the bedside table makes me feel like a slightly different person; someone, possibly, whose opinions might just matter a little.
When I go downstairs, my mother is busy in the kitchen, and my father is circulating with a jug of water, charging the tumblers set out on the dining table. He puts down the jug to greet me and we kiss hello. I am filling him in on the highs and lows of my journey (“Did you see the new B&Q they’ve built outside Tewford?”) when my mother—mouthing a tiny O of anxiety as she bears a Pyrex dish of mince and potatoes before her—enters, obliging us to separate. We both step back to the edges of the room so she can get to the table.
“I hope you’ve worked up an appetite!” she says, settling the dish on the trivet, which is laid upon a cork mat, which is laid on top of a tablecloth, which is laid on top of an oilcloth, as if the table itself, somewhere deep beneath these protective strata, happened to be Georgian mahogany rather than an ugly Formica.
The meals at my parents’ house always come thick and fast, and in between there’s a constant opportunity to supplement. The food rolls out in marshalled surges, like Bomber Command. There is no letup. Someone is forever passing around foil-wrapped chocolates, cheese straws, yellow slices of Madeira, salted luxury nuts, little fruited scones anointed with scarlet jam, cubes of mild cheddar speared with cocktail sticks, decorative tins containing layers of scalloped Viennese biscuits. It’s a relentless battery of snacks. The food and the constant preparation and clearing away of it quite often get in the way of other things we might profitably be doing, things normal families seem to do when they convene: going for walks, playing Scrabble, talking about subjects other than roadworks or the weather we’ve been having lately.
From time to time, the real world makes itself known to my mother: strikes, petrol shortages, heavy snow, a rise in the price of wheat. Such events prompt panicked phone calls, sometimes two a day, suggesting I stock up on basic provisions as the local supermarkets have had a run on bread and milk. The chest freezer out in the garage accommodates several weeks’ worth of apocalyptic menus—chicken à la king, beef olives, gypsy tart—stashed in neatly labelled containers that once held soft-scoop ice cream.
Occasionally, when it’s entirely unavoidable, my parents come to London, and though they usually stay with Hester (who has a proper spare room in the house in Maida Vale), once in a blue moon they have to stay on my sofa bed. Of course, these visits are always an ordeal for my mother, who applies herself strenuously to the task of appearing easy and relaxed in what is essentially enemy territory. “This looks smart,” she’ll murmur faintly, as I put a risotto on the table or scoop some avocado into a salad. “Just half for me.” After one such meal, when I came unexpectedly into the room, she turned her back on me, unable to speak, her mouth full of biscuit.
The chocolate wrappers and apple cores I find in the bin when they’ve left are always exquisite little reproofs.
We sit and eat. It’s constantly disconcerting, my mother’s cooking. She models herself on the ideal hostess, but she cooks like a prison caterer, as if the activity is a punishment which she is obliged to pass on to others. This cottage pie is no exception.
“Frances was saying London is very busy,” my mother informs my father.
My father picks up his fork and says Stewart Pearson was down in London last week, visiting Clare and the grandchildren.
“Clare lives not far from you, doesn’t she?” says my mother. “Do you ever see her?”
Clare lives, I believe, in Acton. I barely even know where Acton is. I had nothing in common with Clare when we were at primary school together, and now she’s a marketing manager at Unilever with a husband and two children we have even less to talk about when our paths cross at the Pearsons’ Boxing Day drinks. “I thought I saw her going into Selfridges last week,” I invent. “But she was quite far away, I couldn’t be sure.” I rake my fork through the pale, uncrisped mash so the gravy seeps down the channels, just as I used to as a child, before I knew that not all food tasted like this.
“Have you seen Hester and Charlie recently?” my father asks.
I say I babysat for them a few weeks ago, and we talk a little about Toby and Rufus. I quite enjoy my nephews, as long as I don’t see them too often or for too long. Overexposure is never satisfactory, not least because I’m frequently rather dubious about some of Hester’s parenting techniques. But I know from experience that my parents don’t want to hear about that. My parents are always more enthusiastic about the idealised notion of the grandchildren than they are the noisy, messy reality. That much is clear when we all congregate here or at Hester’s house at Christmas.
I sometimes suspect that, as far as my mother is concerned, the real purpose of family is to ensure she always has something to talk about if she bumps into Mrs. Tucker at Tesco.
As is customary, she only half-listens to what I am saying about Toby and Rufus. My mother has never been an engaged listener. Other people’s speech is useful mainly as a prompt. So when I mention Toby’s passion for Playmobil, she launches on an anecdote about a den Hester and I once built together using the clotheshorse and all the clean towels in the airing cupboard—a story I’ve heard countless times before (although I now have no memory of the actual incident). I wonder how much of a connection my mother makes between the child I once was and the adult I now am. Usually she talks of my childhood as if it were something that really happened only to her, as if I were only distantly involved.
We have crème caramel in stemmed glass dishes for dessert, and then I help to clear away. The evening stretches ahead of us: acres of it, as flat and featureless as the fields around the house. None of us can decently go to bed for hours.
We fill the time with coffee and mint chocolate thins in little slippery envelopes, and my mother lays the table for breakfast, and then we watch several finalists competing for a part in a London stage musical, and after that there’s a film, an action movie set in ancient Rome. My mother fidgets uneasily during the fight sequences and the sex scenes. In the second commercial break, she collects the cups and chocolate wrappers and says, “Well, Frances, I hope you have everything you need. Sleep well, dear.” Then it’s just my father and me, sitting side by side in the darkened room, eyes fixed on the screen like astronauts preparing for countdown.
From time to time, I can hear the dog barking. It’s a less angry sound now, as if she has started to adjust to her new status, as if she is now merely disconsolate.
We don’t watch the end of the movie, but switch over for the ten o’clock news.
Later, as I move around my room, picking the plastic film off the soap (as tiny and pearly pink as prawn dim sum), brushing my teeth at the rinky-dink basin and running the flannel over my face, I hear my father escorting Margot through the house and ushering her, with a strange sort of chivalry, out the front door (“Come on, old girl, time for some fresh air”). I poke back the curtain an inch with a finger and watch the pair of them beginning a circuit of the village green, moving slowly between the benison of the lampposts, a stout, elderly man and a stouter, elderly dog, out in the wind and the dark.
Fifteen minutes later there’s the slight reverberation as the front door clicks. Lying in bed with the novel propped open on my chest and a notebook and pen ready on the bedside table, I hear Margot’s nails skittering down the corridor and my father’s muttered good-night as he shuts her in the sunroom and then comes upstairs, wheezing faintly on every step.
The buzz of the bathroom extractor fan, the toilet flush, the fan switching off. Finally there’s silence.
This is the house where I grew up, and it means nothing to me, just as I mean nothing to it. There’s no sense when I’m here of being safe or understood. If anything, this is the place where I feel most alone, most unlike everyone else.
I learned to talk and walk here; I sat at the dining-room table painstakingly crayoning letters on sugar paper; I sowed mustard and cress upon thick, wet layers of kitchen roll; I came down on Christmas mornings and received dolls and roller skates and bikes and, as time went on, book tokens and jeans that I’d picked out myself; and I lay on my stomach on the lawn underneath the elder tree, reading and reading; and then I moved away, and it was as if I’d never lived here at all.
The radiator gurgles as the central heating shuts off for the night. I shift position in the narrow bed, looking at the shadow the pendant lampshade casts across the ceiling, trying to remember what it felt like, growing up in my parents’ house. I don’t remember being especially happy or unhappy here. Childhood just happened to me, as I suppose it happens to most people. At the time, it seemed an endless succession of fears and dreams and secrets, but from this distance it looks as dull as the life I’ve gone on to lead. Did I tell my mother when things went wrong or well at school? I’m fairly sure I did not. She was never at leisure to be interested in me. She had other things to worry about.
Hester was always kicking off, throwing down challenges, sneaking out to meet boys. I remember the general relief when she went off to university. But I wasn’t like that. I was the good girl: biddable, compliant. I did what I was told, I kept my nose clean, I was no trouble to anyone. But the farther I travelled from the house where I’d grown up, the less I seemed to belong; the less it looked like home.
On a bitter winter's night, Frances Thorpe comes upon the aftermath of a car crash and, while comforting the dying driver, Alys Kyte, hears her final words. The wife of a celebrated novelist, Alys moved in rarefied circles, and when Frances agrees to meet the bereaved family, she glimpses a world entirely foreign to her: cultured, wealthy, and privileged. While slowly forging a friendship with Alys’s carelessly charismatic daughter, Frances finds her own life takes a dramatic turn, propelling her from an anonymous existence as an assistant editor for the books section of a newspaper to the dizzying heights of literary society.
With her unforgettable protagonist, author Harriet Lane draws readers into a tightly paced tale that careens towards an audacious ending. Transfixing, insightful, and unsettling, Alys, Always drops us into the mind of an enigmatic young woman whose perspective on a glamorous world also shines a light on those on the outside who would risk all to become part of it.
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Reading Group Guide
Frances Thorpe’s life as an assistant editor for the books section of a struggling newspaper is neither exhilarating nor remarkable until a chance encounter on a rainy night changes her life forever.
While driving back to London after a weekend at her parents' home in the country, Frances notices a car that has crashed along the side of the road. After calling for an ambulance, Frances comforts the woman in the driver’s seat, and hears her final words. When the family wants to meet and thank her, Frances resists until she learns that the woman was Alys Kyte, wife of a famous English novelist. After easing the minds of the family members with her account of Alys’s last conversation, Frances strikes up an unlikely friendship with Alys’s daughter, the wealthy, careless and exuberant Polly. As the months go by, Frances gains access to the exclusive world of the literary elite, and becomes irrevocably bound to the Kyte family.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When Sergeant see more