The One Saving Grace | Chapter 24 of 42

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

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19

‘Harriet, I need you to talk to Grace. She’ll listen to you.’ Amanda’s words floated down the hall behind me as I led her into the kitchen. I gave it a perfunctory glance ‒ I never wanted to be caught with a less than perfect kitchen when Amanda was about to enter it ‒ and sighed, realising she was in full flow even before we sat down.

‘What is it, Amanda? Something’s obviously worrying you for you to be round here so early.’ I’d just got in from taking India to school and had been relishing the thought of texting Alex, together with the first coffee of the day and the Telegraph crossword. I’d already had a crafty peek at the first tantalising clue before setting off, and it needed my undivided attention before I started anything else.

‘Geg,’ I muttered.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Amanda raised her professionally shaped eyebrows while divesting Jonty of his outer suit. That child grew more delicious every day. He smiled winningly at me and was more than happy to lie with the twins on their mat, reaching out for their assorted toys with his chubby hands.

‘Geg,’ I said again. ‘One down. Nine and three letters.’

‘Scrambled egg,’ Amanda said dismissively. ‘Harriet, I’ve not come here to do crossword puzzles, much as I enjoy a challenge.’

Oh, God, she was up herself this morning. Something was obviously very wrong. ‘What’s the matter?’ I folded the paper and gave her my full attention, annoyed that she’d taken away the pleasure of solving the clue myself. ‘Come on, tell me.’

‘It’s this MBU place that Grace wants to transfer herself to.’

‘And? Amanda, I think it’s a great idea. A sort of stepping stone to having Jonty with her before she has him alone at home.’

‘A great idea? Harriet, it’s a terrible idea. I don’t want Jonty in some council run home mixing with God knows who. You don’t know who is going to be in there. Who he’ll come across.’

I wanted to laugh. In fact I did laugh. Out loud.

‘Oh, don’t be so ridiculous, Amanda. Who do you think he’s going to be mixing with? He’s a five month old baby. He doesn’t use a knife and fork yet so won’t be influenced into holding his knife like a pen, if that’s what you’re worried about. I laughed again and Amanda frowned. ‘And,’ I went on, enjoying myself now, ‘I doubt that there will be any baby drug pushers in there encouraging him to light up a spliff or two.’

Amanda flushed slightly. ‘You’re being facetious, Harriet. I just think Grace needs to get totally better ‒ get off her medication first ‒ before she begins to take care of him. We have to think of Jonty. He hardly knows Grace. She’s not been there for him. He’ll, well, he’ll miss me, Harriet.’

‘I know this is hard for you, Amanda,’ I said, more gently now. ‘I know how much you love him and you’ve been absolutely brilliant with him. But he is Grace’s baby, you know. The whole point of these specialist units is for experts to be on hand so that mothers can really bond with their babies again.’

‘But why can’t she bond…’ Amanda almost spat the word, ‘bond with him in the comfort of her own home with us all there to help her?’

‘Because it’s not her own home, is it? Surely you can see that, Amanda?’

Amanda got up from where she’d been sitting at the kitchen table and went over to pick up Jonty. She walked towards the window with him and looked out at the frosty lawn without speaking a word for a minute. Eventually she said, ‘It just reminds me of the mother and baby units in prison. I did a bit of criminal law when I was doing my articles and did some work out at Netherdown Women’s prison.’ Amanda had her back to me as she continued to look out on to the garden. ‘I visited the mother and baby unit there. I don’t want Jonty in a place like that. And Manchester? It’s so far away.’

Oh, no, it isn’t.

‘Not your decision, I’m afraid, Amanda. What does Seb think?’

He obviously just wants what’s best for Jonty. He’s so busy these days doing his part time Masters as well as his involvement with L’uomo. He’ll find it difficult to get over to Manchester, too. This has not been an easy time for him, you know.’

‘No, I can see that,’ I said. ‘But Grace is getting better, you know. I was there yesterday and the difference in her is quite amazing.’

‘She’s got the court case hanging over her as well, don’t forget. That’s just before Christmas.’

‘I hadn’t forgotten. And neither has Grace. I’m sure it can be adjourned if necessary. Just get her solicitor to write to the magistrates’ court explaining the situation. It might even help her case if they know she’s been so ill she’s had to be in a psychiatric unit having treatment.’

‘That’s another thing,’ Amanda said. ‘Grace says she doesn’t want a solicitor. Says it’s not necessary. She knows she’s going to be banned from driving for at least a year and she says she has to accept it ‒ go along with it and get through the year without a car.’

‘Well, I think that’s good, isn’t it? She’s coming out of her inertia, her misery. She’s determined to sort it out herself and get back to where she was before she became ill. When did she tell you this?’

‘Yesterday. I must have missed you by ten minutes or so.’

‘You did take Jonty with you, didn’t you?’ I asked. Grace had been sure that she was going to see him later that day and, although nervous, was also excited about seeing her baby.

‘No.’ Amanda coloured slightly. She knew as well as I did that Grace had been hoping to see him. ‘I didn’t want to upset her. Anyway, we talked about the court case and she says she’s more than capable of handling it herself once she gets home.’ Amanda hesitated and then said, ‘You do know she doesn’t want to come back home?’

‘Oh, she does, Amanda. She really does want to get back to normal.’

‘No, I mean, back to us. Back to our place.’

‘Well, where is she thinking of going? The farmhouse is nowhere near being ready and her and Dan’s house is sold, I think.’ I was surprised. Grace hadn’t given me the impression she was going somewhere else.

Amanda looked stricken. ‘She says she’s going home. Home to her parents. And then I won’t see Jonty.’ She clutched Grace’s baby to her chest and began to cry. ‘I won’t see my little boy.’

*

Two weeks before Christmas, Nick came home early from a ten day trip to China and announced that he was staying at home until after New Year. Customers wanted to see him, he said, but they’d just have to bloody well wait.

‘I’ve been on the go, non-stop, for over a year now,’ he’d announced, ‘and I want to be at home with you lot for a while. I want to be with you, Harriet, my gorgeous girl. I’ve really missed you.’ He’d pulled me down on to his knee, kissing the side of my face, searching for my mouth.

All I felt was panic.

‘What is it, Hat? You don’t seem happy. You don’t seem pleased to have me back early.’

‘I’m fine… I’m fine. I’m just tired.’

‘Well, I’m home now,’ he smiled. ‘I’m obviously going to have to go into the office, but I’ve told David I’m going nowhere that needs a passport until well after Christmas. Tell you what, let’s go out tonight. We could go to Xavier if you like.’ This was the lovely restaurant we’d sort of made our own last year when Nick had finally been sure L’uomo was going to work; when I’d first been pregnant with the twins and knew we were financially out of the red and I’d be able to continue the pregnancy.

I didn’t want to go.

‘We’ve no babysitter,’ I said shortly, getting off Nick’s knee and moving into the kitchen where I began the laborious job of sterilising and making up the day’s bottles for the babies. Anything to show Nick how busy I was, and how I couldn’t possibly make myself available to go out with him later that evening.

Nick followed me in. ‘Isn’t Libby around? She’d babysit, surely?’

‘No. If you hadn’t noticed, she’s very rarely in.’

‘Same boy, is it?’

‘I assume so. She tells me nothing.’

‘Has she not brought him home then, yet?’

I sighed. ‘You know Libby. She never brings them home. But she does seem pretty serious about this one, if moodiness and bad temper are anything to go by.’

Nick laughed. ‘I was never moody and bad tempered when I met you. I thought love and passion made you happy, not miserable.’

Oh, Nicholas, how little you know.

I was as moody and bad tempered as my daughter at the moment. Until Alex texted me. And then I was high as a kite, doling out bonhomie, money for new trainers and even allowing Ben & Jerry’s on a weekday night for pudding.

‘Well, invite him for Christmas,’ Nick said, helping me to assemble bottles ready for the fridge.

Christmas? Who? Invite who? Alex?

‘For Christmas? Who? Invite who?’ I stared at Nick, my heart pounding.

Nick looked alarmed. ‘This new boyfriend of Libby’s. Who did you think I meant?’

‘Sorry, I didn’t know who you were talking about,’ I said, embarrassed. Guilty. Relieved.

‘Invite him for a drink on Christmas Day. We might get to see him then. Anyway, what about Lilian? Is she around to babysit tonight?’

‘I think she said she was out this evening ‒ some do with her friend, Joan.’

‘Where is she?’

‘Who?’ I felt irritable, I didn’t want to go out with Nick and hold hands across a table for two.

‘Lilian.’ Nick looked at me strangely.

‘She’s just popped out with the dog.’

‘Ah, she’s here now,’ Nick said, seeing her walk past the kitchen window. ‘Lilian, are you out with your friend Joan tonight?’

Lilian looked surprised, as well she might. ‘Tonight? Joan? No… what gave you that idea?’

Nick looked from Lilian back to me. ‘We were thinking of going out tonight but Harriet seemed to think you were out with your friend and wouldn’t be free to babysit.’

‘Joan? Joan lives in Barnsley. I don’t see her that often.’ Lilian peered at me over her glasses, giving me her Mrs Doubtfire look.

‘So are you free then, Lilian? Could you sit for us?’

‘Yes, of course. No problem.’

‘Brilliant.’ Nick jumped up and gave her a peck on the cheek. ‘I’ll go and book it right now.’

*

Later that evening, unable to get out of dinner with Nick, I was like a sulky child, uncommunicative and unsmiling. Nick, on the other hand, was delighted to be out and not having to think about work for a couple of hours; having dinner with the wife he loved.

‘OK, tell me who you’ve invited on Christmas Day.’ Nick broke a breadstick and leaned forward, eager to know what I’d planned.

‘I’m not sure you want to know,’ I said, drinking my large glass of SB straight down. I felt irritable, miserable, guilt ridden. More so because Nick was happy and excited.

‘It’ll be great,’ he said. ‘It’s years since we’ve had the money or the inclination to do a big, proper Christmas, and you’ve spent the last few years shattered after the Christmas madness at school. So, go on, hit me with it.’

It had seemed a really good idea at the time. After a particularly rampant afternoon with Alex a few days earlier in his car on the moors above Saddleworth ‒ believe me when I say sex in a two seater Porsche is brilliant for inventiveness ‒ I’d come home and proceeded to ring round, scattering invitations like confetti. I was on a post lust high, in love with the world and wanted a party. The bigger, the better.

Now, it all seemed a bit of a nightmare.

‘Well,’ I said, counting them off on my fingers, ‘there’s us seven and Mum, Dad and Diana. Grace told me yesterday that Amanda obviously wants Seb, Grace and Jonty with her and David, but Grace is refusing to go there ‒ says she never wants to go back there again: too many bad memories. So I suggested they all come here. But then that meant leaving Grace’s parents out just as they’ve come back from Australia early to be with Grace, which seemed a bit mean, so I suggested they come here too…’

Nick said nothing, but joined me in downing his glass almost in one before nervously breaking another breadstick.

‘And then your mum rang this morning to say they’d changed their mind about going back to Barbados again for Christmas and so they’d be able to come and join us after all if the invitation still stood, so that’s another two…’

I was beginning to run out of fingers but ploughed on, ‘and then I sort of bumped into Sandra in the village and she said she was going to be by herself…’

‘Sandra?’

‘Sandra Duck-Lady from the village. You know, your mother invited her to the dinner party we had in October…’

‘Right.’

‘And she said she’s now going out with Juan Kerr ‒ you know, Philip, Kit’s teacher – and would it be all right if he came too…?’

‘I thought you said she said she was all by herself.’ Nick poured more wine.

‘Yes, I still haven’t worked that one out. Must have been a ploy to get their feet back under our table.’

‘Well, for heaven’s sake don’t tell Kit just yet: if he knows that, it’ll ruin his Christmas. And tell her if she is coming and bringing the teacher she can bring a couple of ducks too. Preferably oven ready.’

‘And then, of course there’s Lilian. I couldn’t do without Lilian. I was dreading her going back to Ireland for a week or so – but no, says she never had any plans to do that…’

‘And Rebecca.’

It was my turn to look surprised. ‘Rebecca?’

‘Yep. She rang just before we came out while you were in the shower. Sorry, forgot to tell you. Apparently the husband is taking her girls away skiing. It’s been booked for months. Upstate New York, I think. Killington? So, rather than staying by herself in Chicago, she’s decided to come home for a couple of weeks. She doesn’t seem to have much to do with her own parents, does she? Anyway, I invited her to come to us for Christmas Day. I assumed you’d have done the same if you’d been the one to speak to her.’

‘Yes, of course. No problem.’

‘What about John and Christine? It seems a bit mean inviting all your family over and not your own brother and his wife.’ Nick raised his eyebrows. We hadn’t discussed my brother’s relationship – if such a relationship had ever existed during the past few years, except in my daft brother’s imagination – with Amanda for a long time.

I looked at Nick in some astonishment. ‘John? When Amanda Henderson is coming? That would be just great. The whole day with John gazing over at her like the lovesick fool that he is…’ I broke off, shamefaced, as it suddenly occurred to me that John might, twenty-five years on, still be lusting after Amanda, but lovesick fools obviously ran in our family.

‘Yes, I suppose you’re right.’ Nick reached for his napkin as our first course arrived. ‘Although I’m absolutely convinced that there is nothing still going on between them. I’m sure it’s all in John’s head. Pure wishful thinking on his part.’

‘God, I hope so.’

‘So is that it, then?’ Nick asked. ‘Or are there some other waifs and strays you’ve invited and not told me about?’

‘I suppose so.’ What had all seemed like a great idea at the time now seemed like a hell of a lot of hard work. I sighed and drank more wine before turning my attention to my food. I could feel Nick’s good mood beginning to dissipate as he sensed my lack of connection both with himself and with Christmas.

‘Is Grace up to coming for Christmas?’ Nick asked. ‘She couldn’t cope with the dinner party we had back in October, so what’s she going to be like with a houseful of oddbods?’

‘Oddbods?’

‘Well, come on, Hat… I love your parents but your poor mum isn’t getting any better, is she? And Diana, now she’s a fully-fledged vegetarian, will have to bring her own nut roast to go with her Christmas poncho.’

‘Bit vegetarianist, isn’t it?’ I felt cross. I was allowed to tease my sister, but didn’t want anyone else putting their two penn’orth in. I hadn’t told Nick yet about Di’s recent decision to become a Buddhist and how she now spent a lot of time chanting strange… well… strange chants, I supposed.

‘And that duck woman of yours isn’t exactly a full picnic, is she?’

My duck woman? It was your sozzled mother that invited her along in the first place. And what about your mother and Judge Colin? Neither of them are exactly the norm, are they? Your mother thinks she’s the Queen, particularly since she’s become Lady Sylvia, and Judge Colin, once he’s had a bit of Christmas cheer, will be peering down every woman’s dress and dragging them off under the nearest bit of mistletoe.’

‘Bit harsh, isn’t it? Are you saying my mother has married some sort of Lothario?’

‘Oh, come on, Nick, you know what they’re both like. Anyway, as for Grace, she’s probably going to be the sanest one there. She is so much better, you wouldn’t believe. She and Jonty are leaving the mother and baby unit in a couple of days. She’s determined to go from there to her parents’ house until after Christmas.’

Nick looked concerned. ‘And then what?’

‘Well, then I’m assuming once the old farmhouse is ready, she and Seb and Jonty will move into it.’

Well away from Amanda’s clutches.

‘Grace is going to find it difficult with no car down at the farm,’ Nick said. ‘I’m assuming she will be banned from driving.’

‘I really don’t know. I don’t know anything about it. Amanda seems to think she will, but she could just be being Amanda-know-it-all and not really have a clue. Anyway, I’m going to the magistrates’ court with her next week for her hearing. Maybe they’ll take pity on her because of what she’s been through and let her keep her licence…’

‘Hi, you two.’

‘Gosh, Dan,’ I said, getting up from the table to give Dan Stevenson, Grace’s husband, a hug. I realised I hadn’t seen him for over a year – ever since he’d had the affair with Camilla, my newly discovered half-niece, and for whom he’d left Grace. I glanced round, assuming he’d be with some new woman, but he appeared to be alone.

‘Are you by yourself?’ I asked. It would have been a relief to have him join us at our table. I was dreading the stage of the evening where Nick and I would have exhausted all talk about the kids, Christmas and L’uomo and be heading for the handholding stage of the evening with its promise of good things to come once back at home. I’d always loved the end of evenings out with Nick, knowing we were going home. Together.

Until now, that is.

‘I’m with a client,’ Daniel sighed, waving a hand towards a table at the back of the restaurant where a sober looking, besuited man sat perusing the menu in front of him. ‘Buttering him up a bit… hoping he’ll give us a big fat order.’ He grinned. ‘Bit hard going, actually. I hate these business dinners.’ Dan hesitated and then said, ‘How is she, Harriet? How’s Grace? Not too good, I hear?’

‘Oh, you know she’s not been well?’

Dan frowned. ‘Yes, of course. She is still my wife. I’ve kept out of her way – least I could do after what I put her through. But, oh, Harriet, I miss her so much. I’d give anything to put the clock back. For it all not to have happened.’

For one awful moment I thought he was going to cry. Dan’s affair with Camilla had been over even before Camilla had made the decision to go back home to her family in Australia. Dan had come to his senses and realised what an absolute fool he’d been in leaving Grace, but for him it was too late. Grace had been bowled over by Sebastian Henderson and, almost immediately, found herself pregnant.

‘She’s going to be fine, Daniel. She’s much, much better and is actually smiling again. Her mum and dad are back from Australia and go over every day to see her in the mother and baby unit in Manchester. It’s been a brilliant place for her – they have been so helpful there. I spoke to Grace yesterday on the phone and she’s champing at the bit now – really ready to come home.’

‘And home is…? Where is she going to be?’ Dan looked hopeful as he waited for the answer.

I smiled. ‘She’s going to be with her parents for the forseeable future: they’ll look after her if necessary but, to be honest, Dan, she seems more than able to look after herself now. She’s going to be a great mother to Jonty.’

‘Of course she is. That’s all she – we – ever wanted.’

It was all a bit embarrassing really and, after that, there didn’t seem much more to be said, and Daniel said his goodbyes and rejoined his client.

Once out of Dan’s earshot, Nick took my hand. ‘What an idiot,’ he said. ‘He deserves all he’s got. You can’t go messing around with other women, particularly when your wife’s desperately trying for a baby.’

‘You don’t know all the circumstances, Nick. Don’t be so bloody pompous. You sound just like your damned father when he used to get on his high horse about the Labour Party. Or the unions. Or, or… immigration.’ My palms were sweating and I could feel my colour rising. Nick didn’t appear to notice, more concerned that I was criticising both him and his dead father.

‘What is it with you tonight?’ Nick’s face darkened with anger and he screwed his napkin into a ball, throwing it on to the table in front of him. ‘It was pretty obvious from the outset you didn’t want to come out for this meal. And don’t get on my dad’s case, Harriet. He’s not here to defend himself. And I thought we did know all the circumstances re Dan and Grace. Or is there something you’re not telling me?’

There was certainly something I wasn’t telling him, but it had absolutely nothing to do with Dan and Grace.

After that, the evening went downhill. Nick was upset. We spent the rest of the time in polite conversation, declined pudding and coffee and, both having drunk too much to drive, walked home in virtual silence.

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

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