The One Saving Grace | Chapter 14 of 42

Author: Julie Houston | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1038 Views | Add a Review

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9

Grace’s arrest for drink driving brought an end to the dinner party. While there was little we could do to help at that stage, it did put a dampener on the evening and, by one in the morning, everyone had left, Philip Kerr proclaiming it the best evening he’d had in years. He’d tried his luck with Gabs and Rebecca, thoroughly overexcited by the somewhat ribald conversation and too much red wine, and was last seen walking down the garden path – ‘Un moment, ma petite, attends-moi’– in pursuit of Sandra. I’d bet any money his next line to Sandra, once he’d caught up with her, had been, ‘Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’

Anasim had been ferried back to his hotel in Manchester by his driver – I wondered if the poor man had been waiting in the car all evening, and felt a bit guilty that I’d not thought to ask him in for a cup of tea – leaving behind a huge bottle of vodka and some rather dubious Russian chocolate by way of thanks. He and Nick hadn’t by any means finished their negotiations and he said he’d be ‘hangeeng around’ in Manchester for another few days at least. I reckoned if he was gay or transvestite then he must really enjoy coming over to England where he would feel, presumably, safer being who he wanted to be than in his native Russia. I’d been listening, only the other morning, to a radio programme highlighting how Russia’s almost brutal laws had led to an increase in homophobic violence, arrests and even suicides as well as the proliferation of vigilante groups. I was still uncertain as to whether this ‘hangeeing around’ meant down in the Canal Street area, but those perfectly threaded eyebrows – and was that a smudge of mascara under his left eye? – meant that the jury was still out.

Alex and Gabriella had been the last to leave, the latter taking charge of Alex’s little sporty number, racing down the drive like the devil himself was after her. Rebecca had been a bit full on with Alex towards the end of the evening – probably her swansong with the British male before chancing her luck with American men – and Call-me-Gabs hadn’t appeared in the most congenial of moods as she and Alex left the house for their journey back to Manchester. There had been no eye contact, no surreptitious glances or wry little smiles on Alex’s part after Nick had barged in on us looking for coffee –and I was beginning to wonder if I’d dreamed the stroking back of my hair, the cool fingers on my face.

Just as well, you silly bitch, I scolded myself five hours later as I sat, rubbing mascara and sleep from my eyes, feeding two very awake and very hungry babies. Thanks to Lilian, and to Nick – who’d cleared the dining hall and set the dishwasher going once more before coming to bed – the kitchen wasn’t the war zone I’d been expecting as I pushed open the door, a baby in each arm, with my foot. I didn’t even have to make up the twins’ bottles: Lilian had prepared several for the day ahead before she’d left the night before. Was the woman a saint? Saint Lil of Desperate Mothers, I mused, stroking Fin’s downy head as he glugged greedily. Already, after just two days, I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever managed without her.

‘Whatever you’re paying Mrs Doubtfire, double it,’ I said, as Nick came into the kitchen bringing in the few stray glasses that had escaped his attention last night.

He grinned, cock-a-hoop that I’d finally come round to his way of thinking. ‘See, you wouldn’t believe me, would you, when I said you couldn’t do all these children by yourself? We should have had someone in from day one.’

‘If you remember, Nicholas, at the time we were just recovering from having no money at all. That I couldn’t see any way of actually having the twins, never mind paying someone to help look after them.’ It didn’t bear thinking about that, had Nick not been headhunted by David Henderson and – with David’s financial backing and contacts – taken a fledgling L’uomo to the already very strong and expanding business that within a year it had become, I would, in all likelihood, have not gone ahead with the pregnancy. I gave an involuntary shudder at the thought. I still couldn’t believe we were up and running, back on track. Safe.

‘I know I keep going on at you, Nick, but the business is OK, isn’t it? We do seem to have been spending a lot of money recently, what with doing the house up and having Norma and now Lilian.’ Norma was our cleaning lady who came up from the village two or three times a week and to whom I’d gratefully handed over the mop bucket, Flash and Toilet Duck. Ha! There was another name for Sandra’s duck. Toilet. Why hadn’t I thought of that last night? My best ideas do always come to me when it’s too late.

‘Hat, after what we went through the last few years, do you really think I’d be so stupid as to have us down that road again?’ Nick ran a hand through his dark blonde hair and rubbed at his early morning stubble before taking Thea from me, continuing the job of feeding her. ‘When I got back from seeing Serge in Manchester on Friday, David and I met up with two of the managers from Barclays. Funny, isn’t it? A year ago you and I would’ve have had to wait a week just to get an appointment with some minion at the bank. Now two of their top people come out to see us, almost salivating at L’uomo’s quarterly statements.’

I looked at Nick in surprise. ‘Really? They came to see you? Two of them? And?’

‘Well, obviously David is used to it. With his wealth and business background, I wouldn’t be surprised what they offer him.’ Nick continued to look a bit dazed with what had obviously been a mind blowing meeting with the bank. ‘But, honestly, Hat, I knew we were doing well, that a year on we’d exceeded what was in David’s business plan, but…’

I felt a surge of excitement. ‘I can’t believe you didn’t tell me this on Friday. Why did you keep it to yourself? Does that mean I can go a bit overboard with a new dress for the wedding, then?’ I had sudden visions of Marc Cain dresses, Jimmy Choo shoes and a new Mulberry handbag. A bit like a starving man who dreams of crumpets dripping with butter, bacon sandwiches and roast beef, all I could visualise were lovely lady things, things I’d not dreamed of buying since we’d had a bit of money years ago. Did this mental gorging on extravagant fripperies make me a bad person? I had an awful feeling it did, and mentally tried cancelling out the shoes and bag. I’d never been very good at cancelling down fractions in maths, and discovered I was having exactly the same problem cancelling out matching accessories. I really should have paid more attention in Mr ‘Mad’ McGregor’s maths lesson when I was fifteen and dreaming of George Michael… A new frock would suffice.

Nick still looked a bit dazed. He wasn’t hung over – he’d really not drunk much at all last night – so the moronic, faraway look on his face must have been signalling a new dress for me. And maybe a new pair of shoes. And a new bag. A Mulberry.

Nick and I had obviously discussed Grace’s arrest when we’d got to bed. What on earth had she been doing out in her car in the early hours of the morning? Had she gone out after they’d got home? I still wasn’t sure what Seb had expected us to do at that time of night and, at the end of the day, it was both he and his mother who had the law degrees – business and commercial law, so I guess that didn’t count. I suppose, in a bit of a panic, Seb had wanted me, as Grace’s best friend, to know what was going on. I’d asked Seb to put Grace on the phone, but she was at the police station down in Midhope and David was just about to drive them both down there. I’d told him that Nick and I would go over to Amanda and David’s place this morning and, once I’d had a shower, that was what I was planning to do. There was quite a bit of food left over from the party so I didn’t feel the need to start cooking a Sunday roast. We’d just have to have ‘leftover picnic’ as Kit had christened it years ago, and maybe supplement it with a few sausages and some salad.

Rebecca was upstairs, still asleep in the spare room, and I reckoned she’d be there for a few hours yet to come. It was only just seven o’clock and the rest of the house was sleeping, apart from India, who was firmly ensconced in one of the big navy squashy sofas down in the playroom, watching some trash on TV.

‘Hope Alex got home OK last night,’ Nick now said conversationally, not having any idea that the mere mention of the blue eyed one had set my heart racing. This really was ridiculous. I was so going to have to get over this teenage infatuation. ‘What did you think of him? Good looking bloke, isn’t he?’

‘Mmm, suppose so, if you like that sort of thing,’ I said nonchalantly.

‘We’ve brought him in to take care of Italy,’ Nick went on, eager to talk about his beloved L’uomo, totally oblivious to the fact that I was hiding my face in my younger son’s hair.

‘Take care of it?’ I pictured Alex in a doctor’s white coat administering care and attention. It was a rather lovely image and it was only Fin, farting loudly, that brought me away from a little scene of me in a hospital bed – and the good Dr Alex asking me to open my shirt for him – and back to the present.

‘Yes. I’ll be spending a lot of my time in India and China. Oh, don’t look at me like that, Hat. You know the score now. You know I’m going to have to be away a lot.’

I did know the score, only too well. Knew that the whole point of L’uomo was to get as much as yet untapped business with buyers in up-and-coming countries, particularly India, China and Brazil.

And Russia. ‘What about Russia? You thought you’d have to be spending a lot of time out there at one point?’

‘Yes, Russia too. That’s my area, now that we’ve agreed terms with Anasim and his company.’

‘Doesn’t it terrify you, all these deals all over the world? Wouldn’t you rather be just going off to Wells Trading tomorrow morning like you used to, wi’ yer cheese and tomato sarnie and a Kit Kat for yer dinner, and then coming home for yer tea with me and t’ kids?’

Nick laughed at my affected Yorkshire accent. ‘You know I wouldn’t, you daft thing. When I think that I might have had to stay there for another twenty-five years, bored out of my skull, just counting the days to retirement and the inevitable gold watch, I feel sick. I thank God – and David Henderson – on a daily basis for not being in that fucking awful place any more.’

‘So,’ I asked casually, ‘what about Gabs?’

‘Gabs? Who’s Gabs? Oh, Gabriella. What do you mean? With Alex, you mean? I don’t think that’s a very serious relationship. She and Alex don’t live together, I don’t think. He hardly mentions her.’ Nick put Thea expertly over his shoulder where she burped loudly, in obvious competition with her brother. Brothers, actually: Kit could burp and fart for England. I really would have to have a word with him about it – the twins obviously thought that’s what one did in polite society.

A couple of hours later we’d showered, dressed ourselves and the twins, had breakfast, read some of the Sunday paper, had more coffee, rounded up India – who insisted on coming with us to see ‘Auntie Mandy’ – and were ready for the off. Of Liberty, Kit or Rebecca there was still no sign.

Amanda and David lived only half an hour’s drive away, but the organisation involved in squeezing two babies and one little girl into a three door car (plus the necessary paraphernalia that went with them) was ridiculous.

‘We really are going to have to get a bigger car,’ I puffed, narrowly missing Boozy’s decapitation by my car door. ‘There’s no way we’re going to be able to get all of us and all our wedding gear into even two cars when we go down to Surrey. And, I haven’t asked her yet, but I’m hoping Lilian will come with us, and then we can take the twins.’

Nick looked doubtful. ‘Wouldn’t it be better leaving them at home with her? They don’t need you any more, now that you’re no longer feeding them yourself.’

‘Of course they need me, you moron. I’m still their mother. And I’m not sure that I would enjoy being away for two days without them. I’d worry too much. Be constantly on the phone.’

‘It’s a good six weeks away. We don’t have to make any decisions about it yet.’

‘We do if everyone’s coming. We’ll need a big seven seater.’

Nick sighed as he pulled out of the drive and on to the country lane that joined the road down into the village. ‘I always swore I’d never have one of those great big bus type cars. I sometimes yearn for that little old MG I had when I was nineteen. It might have been knackered, let in the rain – and smelt a bit strange – but at least it had kudos. Where’s the pulling power in a seven seater landmass? I might as well go and work for Midhope Corporation on the buses.’

I laughed. ‘You’re a father of five. Your pulling days are well over.’

‘Yes, I suppose they are.’ Nick looked fed up for a moment, suddenly a bit taken back that here he was, not yet forty, with five children, a daughter almost at university, and about to be the owner of a bus. He glanced in his rear view mirror to see if India was earwigging, but she was plugged into the family iPad, playing some (probably) brain-rotting game. ‘We did do all this rather quickly, didn’t we?’

‘Quickly?’

‘I mean… we didn’t really have a wild twenties, did we? Or thirties,’ Nick said, almost wistfully. ‘We got married so young. And, almost without noticing, we’ve got five children and are heading for middle age and a bloody bus.’

I laughed again at his face. ‘You don’t regret it, do you?’

‘No, of course not. You know I don’t. But when I see someone like Alex Hamilton, who’s almost my age, out in his Porsche, a different girl every week…’

‘A different girl every week?’ I felt flattened. All the amazing feelings created in me last night by Alex’s attentions dispersed in one fell swoop.

‘Well, I’m sure he must have. He’s probably a bit of a player, don’t you think? You can’t be that good looking and bright without having a string of women lusting after you.’

I reddened and dived for my bag, having a good scrabble round so that Nick wouldn’t see my guilt at being number one on the string that Alex Hamilton apparently flung out, lasso-style, to panting women in the north. And probably the south, I thought gloomily.

What was that Joan Baez song that my sister Diana used to sing when she was learning to play the guitar and going through her folk singer phase?

He is a handsome devil. He’s got a chain five miles long

And on every link a heart does dangle

Of another maid, he’s loved and wronged…

My dad had got so fed up with Diana’s wailing and strumming at all hours of the day, he’d threatened to ‘break the bloody handsome devil’s neck’ and banished her to the allotment where, with a good wind behind her, she could still be heard lamenting from the depths of his prize Brussels sprouts.

‘So, a bit of a Jelly Deal, do you reckon?’ I surfaced from the depths of my bag, but couldn’t let the subject, dangerous though it was, drop. I wanted to know more about Alex Hamilton.

‘A jellied eel?’ Nick gave me a worried glance. ‘What are you talking about?’

I laughed. ‘Oh, just something Rebecca reminded me about that we’d come up with when we were still at school. We used to say that anyone who was in a relationship with someone who was sweet, red hot and fruity, but which we knew would inevitably come to a sticky end, was with a Jelly Deal or in a Jelly Deal.’

‘Right.’ Nick continued to look baffled. ‘Girl talk, obviously.’

‘So, Alex is a Jelly Deal, then?’ I insisted, wanting to know Nick’s opinion of him.

‘If you say so. I’m sure there are lots of women who have come to a sticky end with him. Moving on, and more importantly, Hat, what are you going to do about Grace?’

*

I marvelled anew every time we left the country lane and drove up the Henderson’s long driveway to where the low, creamy stoned house nestled, its lead paned windows glinting in the sunshine. At this time of year, shrouded in a mantle of reddening Virginia creeper, the house looked particularly ravishing and welcoming. Amanda’s white doves rose in a flutter of snowy wings as we drew up at the huge oak front door. It was as jigsaw-box-picture perfect as always and, lifting Thea from the car, I stage whispered, ‘Play your cards right, little girl. Keep in with Jonty and, one day, all this could be yours.’

‘Come on, you idiot,’ Nick grinned. ‘And don’t forget this isn’t a social call, as such. You’re here to find out what on earth Grace has been up to and to see what we can do to help.’

Amanda came to the door, Jonty in her arms. ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re here, both of you. We’re getting a bit desperate with what to do with her.’

‘Grace?’

‘Who else?’

Amanda didn’t say anything further but ushered us into the kitchen, where David sat reading the Sunday papers. We just get the Sunday Times at our house, but there appeared to be a whole newsagent’s choice, including several tabloids, on the huge scrubbed wooden table in front of him. He rose to make more coffee and pour juice for India, who had gone straight out into the garden to look at the fish pond and dove house.

‘Where is she now?’ I asked.

‘Upstairs, asleep. David and Sebastian went down to the police station about two this morning when we got the call. They were able to bring her home after she’d been breathalysed. She’s been charged with OPL.’

‘OPL?’

Amanda stroked Jonty’s back as he lay on her chest, dozing. Why didn’t she put him down in his carrycot now that he was asleep? ‘Driving Over the Prescribed Limit,’ she said, tartly. ‘Fancy name for being drunk while driving.’

‘But why on earth was she in the car, driving at that time of night? I knew she’d had quite a bit to drink at our place, but they left in a taxi.’

‘She was on her way to her mother’s place, apparently. We can’t get much sense out of her as to why she suddenly decided to get out of bed and set off in the car. She must have known she shouldn’t have been driving. She’ll lose her licence, I reckon.’

Oh, shit. ‘Can I go up to her? Where’s Seb?’

‘Frankly, Harriet, he’s at his wits’ end with the whole situation. He’s gone out for a run to clear his head and decide what’s best.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘He can’t carry on like this,’ David joined in. He’s only twenty-four, he’s got the responsibility of being a new father, the pressure of his course – and that is really intense – and now being part of L’uomo as well. Thank goodness Grace finally agreed to come and stay here with Jonty. Did you see the state of that place they were living in?’

‘I think it was Seb, just as much as Grace, who wanted to move in there rather than renting somewhere else while they did it up,’ I said, feeling cross that all the blame was being put on Grace. At the time, if I remember rightly, Grace had been more than happy to stay where she was, in the house she’d shared with Dan, her husband (before he left), with or without Sebastian. Once she realised she was pregnant – something she’d almost given up on – she’d have lived in a pigsty… which, unfortunately, was where she’d ended up.

‘I know. You’re right,’ David sighed. ‘He did have this dream of helping to do it all up. And you know what he’s like with gardens. He couldn’t wait to start on that.’

‘It’s far too much for him, all of this,’ Amanda said. ‘He’s twenty-four. He should be out enjoying himself at his age.’

‘To be fair, Amanda, both you and David and Nick and I were married with kids at twenty-four. We didn’t feel badly done to,’ I said. ‘Well, I didn’t, anyway,’ I added, when no one else seemed to concur.

‘Times have changed, Harriet. It’s really important these days to get your career sorted and get on the ladder, particularly where law is concerned. Seb was aiming for the Bar, you know.’

Amanda’s griping tone, together with the possessive way she was holding Grace’s baby, was putting me in mind of aiming for the nearest bar too.

Leaving the other three with a baby apiece, I followed Amanda’s directions to find Grace. On all the occasions since Nick and David had been working together that we’d been invited over to the Hendersons, I’d never actually been upstairs. It was just as sensational as downstairs. A huge wooden staircase led up to a mezzanine landing that looked down on to the hall below – just the right size for a Christmas tree, I mused – and numerous cream painted panelled doors led off from the landing in front of me. Amanda had instructed me that Grace’s room was the third door on the right, but I was very tempted to plead amnesia and have a nosy in all of them.

Grace needs you, I scolded myself, ashamed at how easily I was diverted from my best friend’s plight by the promise of a sneaky gander at Amanda’s professionally interior-designed bedrooms.

I knocked gently on the correct door and went straight in. Although the enormous king sized bed lay unmade, Grace was no longer in it, but sitting in an armchair by the window overlooking the garden. She was dressed in jeans and a navy polo necked sweater, her feet bare and tucked up beneath her. She turned as soon as I went over to her, but didn’t seem at all surprised to see me.

‘I saw you all get out of the car,’ she said, a wan little smile on her pale, unmade up face. ‘Sorry to drag you all out on a Sunday morning. Did Amanda ask you to come over?’

‘Well, no. Seb rang us last night after it…’ I paused, ‘… after you’d been arrested. Grace, what on earth were you doing? Where were you going?’

‘I just had this big need to go home. To Mum and Dad’s. I know they’re not there, but I’d been over to their place last week and gone up into the loft to find my diaries.’ She paused. ‘Have you still got all of yours?’

‘Yes, somewhere.’

‘When I was in the loft, last week, reading my diaries, I’d felt so safe. It was almost like I was my fifteen year old self again.’ Grace shrugged. ‘I just decided I wanted to go back and get the rest of them and read them all.’

This was making no sense. ‘In the middle of the night? When you’d been drinking? Grace, you could have killed yourself.’

Or somebody else.

She shrugged. ‘I didn’t think about that. And I didn’t get very far. I was only over by the big McDonald’s at Kellerton when the police stopped me. To be honest, if I had died, it really wouldn’t have mattered. I’m really sorry if that sounds terribly melodramatic, but it really wouldn’t have mattered.’

I was horrified. ‘Grace, it would matter to me. What would I do without you? And Jonty? You don’t think Jonty needs you, you silly woman?’

Grace’s eyes filled with unshed tears. She battled to stop them falling, but failed. ‘I told you, Hat, I’m no good at this. I bet Amanda is down there with him now, isn’t she? And I bet he’s asleep, or at least not crying. He cries whenever I pick him up. Honestly, Hat, Amanda is so much better with him than me. For some reason, I just don’t have that thing you should have with your baby. Harriet, I don’t even… I don’t even like him.’ She put her head on to her arms and sobbed.

‘Right, Grace, enough. You’ve got really bad post-natal depression. You must realise that. Nobody needs to suffer like this these days. Tomorrow, I’m going to come with you and we’re going to your doctor. He’ll pass you on to someone who can really help.’

She raised her head. ‘I’ve already been.’

‘And?’

‘Oh, he just gave me antidepressants and told me to come back in a couple of weeks. They just make me sleepy all the time.’

I felt really angry at this unknown doctor’s cavalier attitude towards Grace. Wasn’t there a big government thing about it? That all doctors and health visitors should be on the lookout for symptoms such as Grace’s? The classic symptoms of PND. My own GP, the wonderful Dr Chadwick, had questioned me mercilessly (once I’d had the twins) as to whether I was feeling weepy, depressed, even suicidal – ticking boxes left, right and centre. I think if I hadn’t escaped, assuring her I was on top of the world – never better, ready to take on all that life threw me, thank you very much – she’d have found something for which she could offer counselling, and would have been able to tick off yet more boxes.

‘This is the most stupid thing I’ve ever done,’ Grace said blankly.

‘Well, you might get let off,’ I said hopefully. ‘You might not lose your licence.’

She frowned. ‘I’m not talking about that.’

‘What then?’

‘This.’ Grace put her head in her hands. ‘This whole thing with Seb and Jonty. I’ve ruined Seb’s life, ruined my own… and must be driving Amanda and David insane.’

‘I wouldn’t worry about Amanda,’ I said shortly. She’ll love having Jonty – and, I would think, Seb, too – over here and under her control.’ I broke off as the sound of crying came up the stairs. ‘Fin,’ I said. ‘I’m going to have to go. Why don’t you bring Jonty and come back with us, now? Seb too, if he wants, obviously.’

Grace shook her head. ‘Amanda’s making a big thing about doing lunch for us all. It would be very rude just to abandon them all and, to be honest, the thought of getting Jonty and all his bottles and nappies and everything ready…’

Fin’s cries were becoming more insistent and I knew I’d have to get the twins home. ‘I’ll ring you tomorrow, and make sure you’ve made another appointment to see your GP. And this time, I’m coming with you.’ I hugged her. ‘It will be fine, I promise you. This nightmare will end. We’ll sort it.’

She got up from the chair and hugged me back fiercely. I was glad at least she had the energy to do that.

‘Remember last summer, when I went into labour in Harvey Nicks?’ I said, holding her in my arms. ‘How we had all those police officers helping us? That was so funny, wasn’t it? And you were really cross because, although you were hugely pregnant too, no one was taking much notice of you. Try and keep your mind on the good times we’ve had over the years. I know it must be a ball ache, living here with bloody Amanda but, at the end of the day, what a fabulous house to be in. And the farmhouse will be great, once it’s done. And your mum and dad will be back from Australia soon, won’t they?’ I racked my brain to come up with other things for her to hold on to once I’d gone. ‘Grace, you have a baby. A beautiful, healthy little boy. And you have the gorgeous Seb, the most lusted after male in Midhope.’ I held her away from me and made her look at me, like I might with India. ‘And you have me. I’ll always be here for you, I promise.’

*

Nick, India, the twins and I went home and, I suppose, we would have had a normal Sunday afternoon, the kids squabbling about whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher, to lay the table and to feed Bones his disgusting cat dinner. And I would probably have been so busy getting uniforms and kitbags ready for school in the morning, trying to find that missing beret which was probably down the back of a radiator somewhere, gathering dust, that I wouldn’t have given another thought to the blue eyed one. Except that, as Nick made several journeys unloading the car of children and their trappings, a text came through on my phone.

Five little words:

You’re playing with my head.

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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