Karin stood up. It was, she felt, what you did in the presence of such beauty.
The girl made her way slowly across the room towards the model.
‘Hi there.’ American then. The accent was gentle, educated, soft. The girl held out her hand. ‘You are?’
‘Lucia Philips. Now please tell me what is going on here – what this model represents. I guess we came in out of the rain and to see the old building, and here is something going on we should maybe know about?’
Five minutes later she knew everything that Karin could tell her and she listened with intelligent attention. They walked round the model. Karin pointed out this and that feature, the girl looked carefully. At the back of the room, Karin was aware of Meriel and a couple of the other volunteers peering out, wondering.
The girl, Lucia Philips, turned at the sound of a footstep behind her. ‘Cax, come and see this.’
He was in his fifties and good-looking. He wore the American equivalent of Savile Row and had an accent to match. But the downpour had been less kind to him. His mackintosh was soaked at the neck and sleeves, and the rain ran down the sides of his face into his neck.
‘Please, let me get you some coffee … and I’m sure I can find a clean towel for you to get a little drier.’
He held out his hand. ‘Well, thank you. George Caxton Philips. I see you already met my wife Lucia.’
Karin looked again. The girl could not be more than twenty-two or -three and Karin had taken the man for her father. But whatever he was, she sensed that they ought to be given the best attention. She went off to the kitchen in search of fresh coffee and a towel. Meriel backed her in beside the sink. ‘Who?’
‘American. Charming. Can you make them a fresh pot of coffee?’ She rummaged in one of the drawers and came up with a couple of faded but clean tea towels with pictures of St Michael’s Cathedral.
‘I’ll bring it out,’ Meriel stage-whispered. ‘You go back there.’
The couple were examining the model together and, as she approached, Karin sensed a frisson of intimacy and sexual electricity between them which startled her, though they stood inches apart and were intent on speaking about the display.
‘I’m sorry this is all we have for you to mop up with but they’re quite clean.’
‘Thank you so much.’ He turned a smile on Karin which explained in a second his attraction for any woman, even a stunning beauty at least young enough to be his daughter. He rubbed his hair vigorously with one tea towel and wiped his face and neck with the second, while making a rueful face. His wife glanced at him and rocked back on her heels with laughter; as she did so, Karin noted the expression on his face in response – adoration, she thought. Not merely love but totally bewitched adoration.
‘Now, let me take these somewhere to be laundered.’
‘Good heavens, no, please.’ Karin held out her hand as Meriel came up with a tray. From somewhere she had made not cups of instant but a cafetière of real coffee materialise. Karin moved away and started to gather up litter from the tables. A few more people came in and headed for the tombola. A couple asked for tea.
Meriel had taken over, as Karin had been perfectly sure that she would, but not before she had heard the American say, ‘We’re so interested in everything. We’ve bought Seaton Vaux, maybe you know it, just a few miles out of town?’
Karin shot into the kitchen where three of the others were huddled. ‘Seaton Vaux,’ she said, indicating with her head.
‘I’d heard there was somebody …’
‘My God, that is serious.’
The tiny kitchen buzzed.
Seaton Vaux, a few miles west of Lafferton, was a Grade I Elizabethan manor house with several hundred acres and an estate village and had been owned by the Cuff family until the death of the last member ten years before. Since then, it had fallen from disrepair into semi-ruin. It had been on the market for a long time, and the usual rumours of pop stars, film stars, royalty and exotic foreigners had done the rounds. Lately, there had been silence. Until now, and this good-looking Ivy League American with the young wife who could put any film star or princess into the deepest shade.
Karin looked out of the kitchen. The lull was over. More people had come in. She went over to take sandwich orders, passing Meriel who was now sitting with the Caxton Philipses. Meriel ignored her.
Meriel saw them out of the hall. Karin hesitated, then climbed on to a chair to look from the high window. A dark blue Bentley glided to the kerb as the George Caxton Philipses appeared in the doorway.
Royalty, Karin thought. Money and royalty. What else?
They closed the doors at four. Mary Payne sat at a card table for twenty minutes surrounded by piles of money and cash bags while the rest of them cleared the hall of everything except the architectural model and displays which would be taken separately.
‘One thousand, one hundred and eleven pounds and fifty-eight pence, two Irish pennies and an Israeli shekel.’ Mary sat back and rubbed her knuckles into her eyes.
A small cheer went up. Everyone was exhausted. Outside it was still raining. No one asked anyone else if the Americans had made a donation.
Two days later Karin was in the garden early, repotting and feeding half a dozen camellias which stood on the sheltered terrace at the side of the house. She heard the postman’s van and walked round to meet him. She still waited, knowing that there would be nothing, uncertain even if she wanted to hear from Mike. She was not happy but she had begun to adjust, focusing on her work and her own garden, and spending as much time as ever on keeping to her organic diet and therapies which had held her cancer at bay for almost eighteen months. The postman leaned out and handed her a pile of mail banded together. She did not want to see a New York postmark. She did want to.
She fanned the letters out on the bench. Nothing from New York. Did she mind? No. Yes. They were all bills and circulars except for one letter in a thick cream envelope, addressed in black.
It was such a great pleasure to meet you on Saturday and we do thank you for your kindness to us and your attentiveness in showing us the very interesting exhibition of the proposed hospice day-care centre.
I look forward to welcoming you to Seaton Vaux and not only after we have come to live there. As my husband told you, our main attention has been to the house but I am so anxious to make a real English garden and especially to recreate something of the great glory that we know was there in former years and which we have seen from photographs. Dr Serrailler enthused to us about your garden design and planning genius and I would so love it if you were able to come and look at ours as it is now, share any ideas you may have, with a view to your being involved in the new work.
We are in London next week and can be reached at Claridge’s Hotel, after which we fly back to New York for a time. I have enclosed a card.
We look forward to renewing your acquaintance.
With all good wishes
Lucia Caxton Philips
The phone rang inside the house.
‘Hallo … Meriel, I was just thinking of you. I’m reading a letter from the beautiful American girl. She wants to restore the gardens at Seaton Vaux.’
‘I know. I sang your praises. Now listen, never mind the gardens, I have had a letter from the handsome Mr Caxton Philips. He’s offered to pay for the day centre.’
‘What? All of it?’
‘All of it. He’s giving us a million pounds.’
‘Quite. It means we go ahead without having to cut any corners or send out any more begging letters.’
‘And all because they walked in out of the rain to look at the Blackfriars Hall.’
‘Now I must ring John Quatermaine. He won’t believe it.’
Meriel put the phone down, as ever without saying goodbye. She would enjoy telling the consultant to the hospice about George Caxton Philips. Within half an hour one American couple had changed the world around. Money, Karin thought. Never despise it.
She re-read Lucia Philips’s letter, written in the slightly unformed hand which gave away her age.
For the first time since Mike left, Karin found herself looking forward. To work on the redesign and planning of the gardens at Seaton Vaux would be a dream job. It was also a daunting prospect. She would need all her skills, her health and strength.
‘Life,’ she said out loud into the kitchen. ‘Life!’
I am sitting over a glass of Sancerre, chilled just as you like it. It is half past two in the morning and I can’t sleep. I have scarcely slept since I drove fast back to London like something scuttling back to its hole, after you threw me out of your flat. Harsh? Yes … I’ll revise it. ‘Made me so unwelcome at your flat.’
I felt ashamed of myself. I felt a fool. I felt with the deepest certainty of my life that I am, and have long been, in love with you. I think it all began as a friendly game, didn’t it, on my side as well as on yours? I think we both wanted a companion for a pleasant evening out, a social partner isn’t it called? And some light-hearted sex. It worked like that for a time but I now realise that for me it was a very short time indeed.
I fell in love with you. I did not want to do so, and I barely admitted it to myself for a long time. Certainly I never admitted it to you. It spoiled things. It has spoiled things. But there we are. I came to see you out of desperation, after having left the messages you never returned. I wanted to know what I felt when I saw you again. Perhaps I had been wrong, and perhaps I would no longer love you and want you so much. It would have been a relief. But I did. The moment you opened the door, I knew nothing within me had changed, but only grown and strengthened.
We were so good together but we could be so much better. I think we should be. I think you are a lonely man who has no idea of the strength of his emotions. But if you admit them, you will find that you are a free person after all, free to be in love, free to be with me.
You mentioned in our brief meeting that there had been someone else. That stabbed into me like a blade until I realised, as I drove home, that it was not true. There was never anyone else, was there? I know you enough to know that you have never had a lover. You wanted to get rid of me, you were in a mild panic, and you invented the ‘someone’. It doesn’t matter. So long as you know how much I love you and will see me again, nothing matters. Please, Simon, phone me, come to me, anything. But don’t ignore me. I can’t bear the silence and the distance from you.
Ever, ever with love,
Simon Serrailler held the paper as if it were alight. When he had finished reading he banged open the kitchen pedal bin with his foot and dropped it inside. The lid clanged shut again. He went to the sink and drank a glass of water, then took out the Laphroaig bottle. It was nine thirty and he had been with first Marilyn and then Alan Angus for several gruelling hours. He had eaten a plate of canteen fried food and come home fit for nothing but a drink, and some time sorting carefully through his portrait drawings to find three to enter for a prize.
He had not recognised Diana’s writing. If he had he would have dropped the letter into the bin before, rather than after, opening it.
It felt like an invasion of his territory, his private space, another attempt to get under his skin, like her visit. He was angry with her for disturbing him, angrier that she hadn’t believed him when he had mentioned Freya. Angry.
He hesitated, took another shot of malt, and shoved the bottle back in the cupboard. It solved nothing and he had less time for drunkards than for most criminals.
He pulled out one of the flat portfolios from the drawer, began to undo the black ribbon ties, but then stopped. He couldn’t look at his work now. He would have no judgement. She had spoiled that for him too.
He would not reply and at least now he knew her writing he could tear up any future letters unopened. ‘If you don’t know what to do, do nothing’ had been one of the few lessons he had learned from his father. So, no reply to the letter, no returning any telephone messages. He would do nothing and if he did nothing for long enough, she would leave him alone. He wished her no harm, he just wished her out of his life.
The cathedral clock struck ten, the grave, measured notes sounding through the room, cleansing it from the stain left by his angry swearing. It calmed him. He lay on his back on the long sofa.
Freya Graffham was in his mind, her neat cap of hair, her fine features. So that had been love and he had been too stupid to recognise it, too slow to act upon it, too … He imagined her in this room, not as a visitor but as a familiar part of it, her books on the shelves, the scores of whatever piece of choral music she had been learning for the St Michael’s Singers opened on the table. In his mind, it was no longer his room but theirs. ‘Have you asked yourself what she felt?’ Cat had asked him when he had told her about Diana’s visit. Now Diana had told him and it had not made him ashamed of himself or sympathetic towards her, it had simply annoyed him.
He got up. There was a team review of the Angus case at nine the next morning, a press conference at ten. The news of Alan Angus’s suicide attempt had not yet become public knowledge and Simon was anxious to brief the media and control their reaction to it. He needed to be fresh. He locked up, put the lamps out, and stood for a few moments looking out of the window at the floodlit cathedral. The sky was clear, the night immensely still. Gradually, Simon felt the calm seep into him. He went to bed to read another chapter of Hornblower before sleep.
But he did not sleep. At two he was still turning about in bed, his peace frayed. He read more, then got up and ate a couple of biscuits. He went back to bed and still did not sleep.
Half an hour later, he left the flat and ran down the hollow-sounding staircases past the darkened offices and out to his car. If he could not sleep and did not want to lie thinking about Diana’s letter, and least of all about Freya, then he might as well be working. The Audi slipped out of the close into the night streets.
Three days after he had left the Jaguar at the airfield, Andy Gunton had received another package in the post, a white Jiffy bag taped with FRAGILE and sent special delivery. Michelle had stood in the kitchen doorway as he came down the stairs.
‘There’s tea in the pot and there’s bread. I’m round to school, ten minutes tops, and when I get back you and me is going to sit down and ’ave breakfast and talk, OK?’
She had yanked Otis’s scarf tighter round his neck and yelled up the stairs for Ashley, lit a cigarette and gone out leaving Andy to close the door. Pete was in bed. In the sitting room the television advertised leather sofas on interest-free credit.