It isn’t normal to loathe your neighbours so intensely that it makes you ill or mad, Laura Delancey reminded herself with newly acquired maturity; and neither is it funny or admirable to spend all your time thinking up ways to torment them.
‘And now you’re going home,’ observed the strange middleaged woman sitting opposite, who was still hoping for a conversation.
Laura’s reaction was to stare down at the floor of the railway carriage, which was extraordinarily clean. The air smelt fresh and tobacco-free and the landscape streaming past the windows seemed unreasonably verdant. Yes, after six months away, she was returning to her family, but as for thinking of it as going home …
They would instantly have comprehended the reason for her bleak, shut-off expression.
‘You’ll have been missed,’ the woman added confidently as the train started to lose speed. Obviously, she had summed up the stuffed rucksack in the luggage rack above and the dirty brown feet in sandals. But the girl had a strange expression, she noticed – half dreamy, half apprehensive – like that of a firsttime visitor.
There was no arguing with the stranger’s statement and Laura nodded, while avoiding eye contact. She’d believed that somewhere on her long journey she’d left the misery behind. But — with each familiar landmark – it was as if her old self were running alongside, threatening to board the train. ‘It’s different now,’ she thought steadfastly, as she noted the three pines on a conelike hill, which meant they’d be drawing into the station in approximately two minutes; and recalled some of the numerous existences glimpsed during her long journey. There’d still be women hanging out washing at the back of their huts close by the train tracks on the way to Cochin or picking tea leaves in the cool hills of Munnar. People would still be cooking in the streets, little boys toiling after foreign visitors begging them to buy cans of coke. Regardless of her absence, the sun would continue rising and setting in blazing scarlet and purple splendour all over India. The night before, she’d created a dead-centre parting in her hair, like carrying home a silent plea for justice and tolerance.
‘Aching to see you, my precious darling,’ her mother had written in the last letter in her typically demonstrative way. There’d been a sticky mark on the fragile airmail paper and Laura had licked it and tasted a sharp sweetness, instantly seeing her mother seated at a disembodied kitchen table, surrounded by freshly filled jars of delicious preserves made from fruit – rosehip jelly and quince cheese.
Being removed from one’s environment made it possible to become someone else, as Laura had discovered along with innumerable other young travellers freed for the first time from punctuality or hygiene or any other sort of personal accounting. So she’d painted herself as a girl with a normal home life. There’d been just one moment of honesty, on a bus. It was because of the noisy pungent camaraderie, like being in a moving slow oven full of friends, and the man, of course – beautiful Chas, who’d just remarked on how crazy his own family was.
‘Nuts,’ he’d said, as he constructed a roll-up with tobacco and an extra something from a screw of newspaper, bought off a man in Jaipur.
‘So are mine.’ To her amazement, it emerged as naturally as a cough.
‘Yeah?’ His amused tone indicated she’d been pigeon-holed. Posh but trying to make out she wasn’t. He’d met loads of those on his travels. As for crazy … People like her couldn’t comprehend the meaning of the word. A little smile played over Chas’s wonderfully shaped lips.
‘They’ve got this feud going,’ said Laura, eager to engage him now she’d started.
Frowning, he repeated the word, pronouncing it like ‘food’.
‘A quarrel with another family.’ She almost added, ‘They used to be our gardeners’ before realizing what a colossal mistake this would be.
‘Yeah?’ Chas flicked his plastic lighter and the mixture caught. He inhaled deeply. He knew about feuds, after all. ‘Like, my dad cut a piece off the neighbours’ Russian vine and they threatened to neuter our cat?’
This is different. I mean, everyone’s been sort of hating each other for forty years. But we got used to that.’
‘Yeah?’ He looked confident that nothing she said could ever surprise him. He passed across the reefer and waited for tranquil amusement to steal through her, too.
‘It was a joke, really.’
‘A joke?’ he repeated, smiling beatifically.
‘But now …’
‘They’ve stolen our house.’
Waiting for the train to arrive, her father, Sam Delancey, was still trembling with rage. It was passing the Rolls in the drive that had done it – edging his battered, bird dropping-encrusted old Volvo past Mark Trafford’s obscenely clean monster and crushing the grass verge, which for once had been a pleasure.
‘Mind my grass!’ Trafford had shouted.
‘How else can I pass you?’ Sam had responded mildly, horrified to find himself actually smiling in an agreeable sort of way. That was the trouble with having been given a decent upbringing — you were programmed to behave well, however murderous your real feelings. It was the word ‘my’ which had really infuriated him, just as the other man had known it would. Worst of all, the brief exchange had spoilt the anticipation of seeing his beloved daughter again.
‘And keep your bloody dogs under control!’ was Trafford’s parting shot, and then the Rolls was gone, sliding up to the magnificent low-lying Abbey like a silver bullet in Sam’s heart.
The station bell had just been trilled. A handful of other people were standing on the narrow station platform waiting for the seven o’clock train. Old Brocklebank was leaning on his shooting stick with his hands clasped on his knees, scanning the blue horizon beyond the empty fields as if praying for a ragged V of honking mallards in flight. The self-styled Lady Bountiful who took it upon herself to organize the church fête was rifling through the basket covered with a white napkin she habitually carried over one arm. Such was life in the environs of a small town in the West Country. Sam nodded courteously at them both and tried to imagine himself with similarly insipid preoccupations. It was impossible.
He made an effort to pull himself together. Laura had been sufficiently distressed by the bad feeling before. It was, after all, why the dear child had been sent away. As the train drew in, he made a resolution. For her sake, he’d keep off the subject of the Traffords.
Scanning the carriages hurriedly, he saw a hunchback squeeze its way out of a door and drop heavily down onto the platform. Then he looked more closely.
Six months ago, when she’d left them, she’d been pastyskinned and overweight. Now she was very slender and the colour of tea, with hair that was longer and fairer than ever. Extraordinary what a difference a few months could make, thought Sam. Laura looked tired and in need of a good wash, but suddenly she’d become a beauty. He wondered if there was a man involved; she was nineteen, after all.
He hugged her, noting the new sharpness of bones in her shoulders. ‘You look different!’
Laura wriggled and blinked, trying to keep the new detachment and hide the shock. In the first instant of recognition while the train was slowing and her father was unaware of being observed, he’d seemed so old and sad, with a lost expression as if he still couldn’t believe what had happened to them all. But now that she’d had a good look at him, she assured herself, he was exactly the same really. Same graceful way of moving, as if there was some crazy, shameful, but not quite abandoned ambition to be a dancer lurking in his burly body. Same favoured old clothes with, no doubt, a fresh sprinkling of moth holes. Same undisciplined curl of hair falling over one eye, except that it seemed greyer now. Same intense frowning way of drawing on a cigarette, as if smoking might hold the solution to all his problems. And in between talking to her he was remonstrating with his dogs just like he always had, in affectionate barks, as if speaking their language.
‘There’s nothing left of you, pet! Yes, she’s home at last but you don’t need to go berserk about it. No, sir, you do NOT get in the front! SIT, you impertinent bugger! I said SIT!’ He went on in the amused, relaxed voice she’d once feared none of them would ever hear again, ‘You’re a mere shred,’ adding a little doubtfully, ‘a shrere med?’ A spoonerism should be greater than the sum of its parts, he had always insisted. It was hardly one of his best efforts but – she recognized – a form of loving reassurance.
‘Well, India …’ said Laura, climbing into the car, too, and remembering the dysentery that had lasted for weeks.
The interior of the old Volvo hadn’t changed either. It was like a travelling office with a non-existent filing system – newspapers and letters strewn everywhere – smelling very strongly of dog. Her father considered it infra dig to bother with keeping a car clean. She wondered if he still stowed his shotgun under the back seat and noticed scribbled notes on an old envelope balanced on the dashboard, which probably meant he’d come up with some fresh scheme to reverse the family fortunes.
‘Well, In-dyar!’ he repeated mockingly, as he reversed sharply (same impatient way of driving), causing the two Labradors to topple from their obstinate standing positions on the hairy back seat. He’d always come down hard on any suggestion of pretentiousness. (‘Why do you think our children are so interesting?’ he’d defend himself to his wife.) Then he seemed to repent. ‘You must tell us about it,’ he said, but not too encouragingly because, although he couldn’t be more delighted his eldest child was home, nothing was more boring than hearing about other people’s holidays. ‘Ma’s been making a feast,’ he went on, sounding very tender. ‘All your favourites …’
‘Oh Pa, the poverty …’ Laura began, biting her lip and shaking her head and thinking, ‘How can I explain to them the difference of what I’ve seen?’ It had become a mission to carry it all back, her conscience weighing her down like a battered, muchtravelled old rucksack.
‘There’s lasagne,’ he went on smoothly, as if he hadn’t heard.
‘Lasagne?’ she echoed blankly, thinking that she hadn’t eaten meat since the dysentery or liked lasagne since childhood birthday parties.
‘Lasagne,’ he confirmed. Laura spoke differently, he noticed. There was a curiously classless twang to her speech now, as if — somewhere on her travels — she’d made a decision to rewrite herself. He decided not to tease her about it for the time being.
‘Meringues?’ she faltered, because she’d not eaten dairy products for months either.
He nodded briskly, pleased they’d remembered. ‘And meringues with strawberries and … cripped wheam.’ She should have been warned from the way he pronounced the last word, like whistling it, putting the ‘h’ in front of the ‘w’. Her grandfather had used exactly the same mannerism when boiling up into a rage.
Then the look Laura had dreaded, and prayed she’d never see again, came over her father’s face – that flushed and glassy-eyed expression that distorted it so — and his voice rose to a frightening shout as he relived the incident with Mark Trafford earlier. All the way back to the Lodge where their family now resided he ranted on, while Laura shifted miserably beside him.
‘Nothing’s changed,’ she thought in despair. ‘It’s as if I’d only slipped out to walk to the village shop.’ She could see that explaining the rest of the world to her family would be just as impossible as trying to explain their crazy feud to outsiders. They were all insane and, now she was once more amongst them, she would be suffocated all over again by their obsession and hatred. ‘Back to square one,’ thought Laura, staring down at her wonderfully thin brown legs as if they belonged to someone else.
It was impossible to approach the Lodge, their shrunken new home, without catching sight of the golden shape of the Abbey in the distance, an E with the middle prong missing. Because it was fringed with lavender bushes, it appeared to float over the ground on which it was built, with something about its open form suggesting an embrace. Its mullioned windows glittered with rosy light, like honeycombs illuminated from within, and smoke drifted languidly from the big middle chimney which meant that a fire had been lit in the enormous stone hearth in the Great Hall. Laura let out a ragged gasp.
Her father glanced at her worriedly and muttered through stiff lips, ‘Bastards!’ as if he really believed that, knowing she was coming home, the Traffords had produced this magical effect out of sheer malice. And then, a moment later, the old Volvo came to a stop outside the red-brick Lodge that seemed so cramped and dark by comparison.
‘Our bumble hungalow,’ Sam said with a savage smile even though their new home had two storeys.
Then Laura’s mother came running out. She was known as Fred because she’d been christened Frederica. In honour of the occasion, she’d put on lipstick and, as usual, it looked jaunty and strange like a wedding hat.
‘You’re so thin!’ she mourned after the lipstick had left pink kiss marks all over her daughter’s cheeks. At that moment, a medley of delicious cooking smells drifted out of the Lodge.
Laura glanced wearily at her father. ‘I did have dysentery, Ma.’
‘I remember, you wrote. My poor darling!’ Then Fred frowned. ‘You really should have looked after your skin …’
‘I know,’ Laura agreed meekly. Then she was overcome by emotion once more. Through the open front door she could see a familiar collection of objects and furniture she’d grown up with, but all crammed into a tiny space now. There was her father’s favourite chair, its seat bearing a hunting scene embroidered by her grandmother, Hester; and the hand-painted standard lamp that had once lit a corner of the freezing Morning Room. The enormous blue and white bowl which had formerly stood, full of rose petals, on the oak chest in the Great Hall now rested on the floor filled with stray court shoes of different colours. Laura had loved that graceful, lightly chipped bowl all her life but, seeing it now, was reminded only of the sad absence of the oak chest and the row that had erupted around it. The Traffords had tried to hang on to it, arguing that it was too big for the Lodge and no use to her family any more. Though Mark Trafford had offered to pay what he called ‘a fair price’ — money they, after all, desperately needed – her father had responded, ‘Over my dead body!’ then affected not to hear the other man’s muttered ‘I wish!’
Her father had refused to sell anything. He’d given the chest, together with a lot of other nice furniture, to the owners of a neighbouring great house who were good friends, with both sides pretending it was a loan till he reclaimed the Abbey. Of the good stuff, only her parents’ four-poster bed, the Refectory table and the family portraits had been left behind.
With reluctance, Laura could understand their decision to leave the long oak table in the Refectory, where it had, after all, stood for centuries. What other house would it fit? Built from a single tree, it measured eighteen feet in length and each scar and stain under its patina of beeswax told a story. The same reasoning could be applied to the enormous four-poster, which was impossible to move from the White Room without being dismantled. But all of them had been astonished by Sam’s insistence that the portraits should stay, too.
Laura now believed she understood this, also. Having lost his family its inheritance, her father was desperate to retain some measure of control. Why else had he insisted on keeping the Lodge at the bottom of the drive as a condition of sale? And leaving images of long-dead Delanceys in the Refectory was surely his way of keeping a toehold in the Abbey itself. Perhaps, in his fevered state of mind, he believed their painted humourless stares would caution the Traffords to respect that historic place. He was so proud of his ancestors, and two in particular – Sir Percival Delancey, who would certainly have been Prime Minister, he’d always point out, but for a frame-up by a jealous political rival; and the Admiral, Giles Delancey, whose courage had become one of the legends of the Navy.
With a flourish, he produced the dead, still-warm pheasant from behind his back. It was one of Trafford’s, of course – reared for a shoot, he’d informed Laura on the journey home, as ‘part of that family’s pitiful attempt to ingratiate themselves with the local gentry’. Intercepting it scuttling across the road, trapping it in his headlights just as they were turning into the long drive, had improved his spirits no end. It was fair game and tit for tat for the business with the Rolls. He hadn’t even needed his gun. A sharp acceleration had been all that was required.
‘Sam!’ exclaimed Fred.
He looked momentarily taken aback. Then he said, ‘Bloody thing was about to attack us! Sheer self-defence.’ He turned to Laura. ‘Wasn’t it, my love?’
‘I’ll hang it in the bike shed, shall I?’ said Fred, smiling at Laura and beaming the unspoken, reassuring message: ‘See what good form Pa’s in …?’
‘No, no! Think I’ll string it up here.’ Sam was already knotting the pheasant onto the door knocker, where it couldn’t be missed by the Traffords the next time they passed, and Laura found herself grinning at the sheer childishness of it.
Her brother and sister hung back a little as they all crowded into the sitting room, where a small table under the window had been laid for supper; and Fred disappeared into the cramped adjoining kitchen to finish cooking on the ancient gas stove that sulked if required to do any more than the minimum. David and Maria would be unchanged, too, thought Laura with a mixture of affection and impatience: eighteen-year-old David the same supercilious, lazy know-all, sixteen-year-old Maria still obsessed with clothes and make-up and boys. She could tell they were delighted to see her yet anxious to retain their new positions in the family. They were probably remembering how her misery had commanded most of their father’s attention — even with everything else that had been going on at the time. He’d borrowed money he’d never be able to repay to send her off on her travels. ‘Laura’s too sensitive for her own good,’ he’d told them when they’d questioned the fairness. Laura had heard them all through the flimsy floorboards as she lay weeping in her bed.
She now noticed something that really was new, pinned to a wall where it could not be missed. It was a large plastic board intended for shopping lists, with a felt-tip pen attached by a cord. Scrawled on it in a mixture of her parents’ handwriting were five seemingly unconnected statements: ‘Today is Friday, 28 June 1985. The Prime Minister is Mrs Thatcher. I will need a bath tonight. I will not need to be driven to Magna Saunter for wool or anything else. I live at the Lodge now, and not the Abbey.’ The last sentence had been underlined twice.
Laura glanced at her father enquiringly but, before he could respond, Hester Delancey entered.
For as long as Laura could remember, her grandmother had been elegant, fitting into the Abbey as naturally as the marvellous plaster-moulded ceilings and panelling installed four centuries after it was built. She was as essential a part of its flavour, for her family, as the smell of dried flowers and boiled cabbage, or even the silverfish that skittered across the flagstones. In her pearls and beautifully cut clothes, her style was languid amusement, though it was acknowledged that nobody could have managed the Abbey’s staff so efficiently or cared more passionately about its treasures. It was obvious what the house represented to Hester because, even as a child, Laura had observed some dreadful dysfunction in her grandparents’ marriage. They lived in beauty and grandeur yet could hardly bring themselves to speak to each other. When she was nine, her grandfather had died very suddenly from a heart attack and her grandmother had handed over control of the house to Fred, as required, though remaining very much an incisive, advising presence.
Now, Laura was horrified to see that she wore a stained twin-set over a pair of old trousers bristling with bits of twig picked up on her mysterious rambles, and thick, carelessly applied make-up: blue eyeshadow that made her look like a parrot, bright-pink lipstick that left greasy smears on every cup and glass. Her hair stood up in a wild white halo, and the once finely plucked brows that had given her face its distinctive quizzical expression crouched over her wandering green eyes like shaggy grey moths. It was as if everything in her had been rendered its opposite by the dementia.
Sam had warned Laura in the car how greatly Hester had deteriorated over the last six months. It was only fragments of the past that she remembered with clarity now — sharp emotions like fear or relief picked out of a cabinet of memories so jumbled that she often made no sense at all. Yesterday, she’d remarked, apropos of nothing, in the maddeningly undisciplined fashion that contrasted so oddly with her refined and careful way of speaking, ‘We were lunching at the Caprice. Someone’s birthday? I forget …’ She’d laughed suddenly, as if she’d made a joke. ‘And then we heard it right overhead. UH-UH-UH-UH! That’s how it sounded! A what do you call it? And everyone dived under the table. It was funny!’ She’d stopped short, looking cross and an hour later, when they were all sitting having tea and talking about something entirely different, had suddenly announced very loudly and triumphantly, ‘Doodlebug!’ Hester had always talked a lot about the war but these days the family never listened. They treated her ramblings like muzak. It was the only way to tolerate them.
Now, she announced very regally: ‘How nice!’ She was looking a little curiously at Laura, almost as if waiting to be introduced.
‘Gran?’ There appeared to be some confusion in her grandmother’s eyes, thought Laura, as if two conflicting emotions were jostling for supremacy.
‘Supper time,’ said Fred coming back into the room and rapping the table as if beating a gong. As usual, she’d taken the same care with presentation as she’d once done at the Abbey. She’d laid out ironed linen napkins and the remainder of the silver cutlery, though the candlesticks had long since been sold. Instead, there were nightlights in pretty, though mismatched saucers; and pink geranium petals were scattered artlessly, like sugared almond treats. ‘A welcome home feast for our darling Laura,’ she announced, smiling fondly at her elder daughter.
‘Oh, have you been away?’ Hester asked very graciously, the consummate hostess. And, at that, Laura laughed in exactly the same joyous abandoned way she used to, at the same time giving her grandmother an apologetic and loving kiss. Hester returned the embrace with surprising strength, as if – somewhere beneath the distressing craziness – all the old humour was still there, together with a new warmth. Suddenly, the whole business of coming back became bearable.
A PERFECT REVENGE. Copyright © 2007 by Annabel Dilke. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.