The Long Way Home

Robin Pilcher

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

1

Alloa, Scotland‚December 1988

As she left the driveway and ran down the narrow lane leading to the farm, the silence of that cold winter morning was absolute, save for the crunch of breaking ice as her Doc Martens stamped through the puddles that ran ribbon-like along the rutted track. Tears glistened on her rosy cheeks, but the broad smile on her face showed that they were due to the frigid air nipping at her brown eyes rather than from any feeling of unhappiness. In fact, Claire Barclay could not have been happier. The cold that penetrated her padded jacket and bit at her ears through the woolly hat she wore pulled over her short hennaed hair was counteracted by a tingling warmth flooding from deep within.

Because Claire Barclay was most definitely in love.

Actually, she had been in love with Jonas Fairweather, expert motor mechanic and budding champion rally driver, ever since she had first come to Scotland at the age of eleven, but even though she had spent nearly every day of the next seven years in his company, she had never told him. And he had never said anything to her. They had never even kissed.

So the question that had arisen on so many occasions in Claire's mind was when to broach this subject, and take their friendship from its present stage into one of deep and everlasting affection.

Today was the day, the time was right. She had finished with school and now had nine months to spend with Jonas before she went on to university at St. Andrews. And it was Christmas, the season of glad tidings. The previous evening, they had been together in the workshop, and they had talked and laughed while he worked on his car until well after eleven o'clock. When she left, his farewell had not been the usual muffled goodbye called out from the depths of the car engine. He had walked with her to the door and stood close, spinning a spanner in his hand, catching her eye and smiling at her. She had sensed then that something was going to happen, but he had just slipped the spanner into the pocket of his coveralls, pushed the door open and said, "See you tomorrow then."

Yes, the time was definitely right.

She walked into the farm courtyard and went to the door of the workshop and slid it open. She realized immediately that things were not normal. There were no signs of activity, the bonnet of the Ford Escort was closed and the only sound came from the gas heater roaring away in the corner. She was about to turn and make her way over to the farmhouse when she caught sight of Jonas, dressed in his usual grease-stained coveralls, sitting on an old broken-backed chair by the closed tool chest. He was slumped forward, seemingly oblivious to her presence, resting his elbows on his knees and covering his face with his hands. She walked quietly towards him and, as she approached, began to hear the occasional unsteady intake of his breath.

"Jonas?" she asked concernedly. "What's wrong?"

"Go away," he replied without moving his hands from his face.

"What's happened?" she said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

He reacted to her touch as if he had been scalded. Violently pushing away her hand, he jumped to his feet and walked away from her and stood facing the rear of the workshop. "Just head off, will you. I don't want you to be here."

Claire shook her head incredulously. "No, I will not head off, not until I know . . ."

He turned and glared contemptuously at her. "For Christ's sakes, just get out. Get back to your big mansion house and stay there." He began to walk quickly over to the door. "You're not welcome here."

Tears welled up in Claire's eyes as she followed him out into the courtyard. "Jonas, what on earth has happened?" she cried after him. "Why are you being like this?"

He spun round but kept walking backwards towards the farmhouse. "Just leave me alone, will you?" He scythed his hands apart. "It's over . . . for good. I never want to see you again."

Claire stood in shock as she watched him turn and hurry off to the farmhouse. He entered and slammed the door behind him. She ran over to it and tried to turn the knob, but it was locked.

"Jonas!" she yelled out. "What are you doing? Please, Jonas, let me in." She laid her cheek against the cold wood of the door. "You can't do this," she said quietly. "I love you." She slumped onto the doorstep, brushing away the tears that fell freely down her cheeks with the back of her hand, ignoring the icy dampness that seeped through her denim skirt and thick black tights.

She stayed there for half an hour, only moving when the shivering in her body became so severe that she felt she might pass out with the cold. She got up and glanced back at the closed door before making her way stiffly across the courtyard and back out along the track.

It was the last time she would ever use it.

2

New York‚May 2005

Pushing the set cutlery on the table to one side, Claire Barrington placed the menu and reservations book on the laundered white tablecloth and smoothed down the back of her black pencil skirt before sitting down on the velvet dining chair. She pulled it in and opened up the book, turning the pages to find that day's bookings. Every line was filled, both for lunchtime and the evening meal, and additionally six names and telephone numbers were written in red at the side of the page in case of cancellations. It wasn't a surprise or anything out of the ordinary. Since her husband Art had started the restaurant over sixteen years ago, Barrington's had steadily built up a reputation of being one of the best places to eat in the East Village.

Claire glanced over her shoulder towards the kitchen. There was no sign yet of the chef appearing. Pushing back her chair, she got up and walked over to the bar, taking out the small make-up case that she always kept on a shelf behind it. She had learned over the years to take opportunity of every downtime moment and she hadn't yet had the time to check her appearance since arriving that morning. She undid the zip of the case, extracted a lipstick and was in the process of applying a light red gloss to her mouth when the chef hurried through from the kitchen. She turned to him and smiled. "So, what happened to you, Jean-Pierre?"

"I am sorry, Claire, I was talking to the fruit supplier. He was not able to fill the order for the avocados."

Claire smacked her lips together and studied them in the mirror at the back of the bar. "What can we do about that, then?"

"There is another man I can try. I will phone him after."

Claire replaced the make-up case behind the bar and led the way back to the table. The chef followed close behind, wiping his hands uncertainly on his starched white apron. He had come over from France to work in the United States two years before as a sous-chef in one of the smart uptown hotels, and although quite happy in his work, he had seen the job advertised at Barrington's for a head chef and had decided to apply. As soon as he arrived at the little restaurant in the East Village, with its smart cream exterior and the green-striped awning with "Barrington's" in italic letters across it, giving shade to the small wrought-iron tables that were trellised off from the sidewalk, he knew that he wanted the job.

During the interview, his Gallic mindset had caused him to focus more on the owner's wife than on what was being said to him by the owner himself. He liked very much what he saw in front of him—the short dark hair, the brown eyes and the small nose with the hint of childish freckles across its bridge. They seemed to belie her age, which he would guess at being about mid-thirties. She remained standing behind her husband during the interview, and so he was able to take in her slim figure and maybe too-slender legs, but what he had not read was the steely assuredness of her character behind the elegant appearance.

"Excuse me," she said, breaking into her husband's explanation about the job's required duties, "but are you more concerned with staring at my body than hearing what this job entails?"

He had spluttered out an apology, his face reddening as he glanced from husband to wife. His credentials got him the job, but he had never dared to cross Claire Barrington again.

He now sat down on the chair opposite Claire. He took off his tall white hat and laid it on the table, and sliding a hand through his hair, he watched in silence as she studied the menu.

"Those avocados are important, Jean-Pierre," she said without lifting her eyes. "We need them for the cress salad to go with the fish."

"Don't worry. I will get them."

"What fish are you going to use?"

"Halibut. I have already had the delivery."

"How much did you get?"

"Enough for thirty covers."

Claire glanced across at the reservations book. "That should be about right. We're about sixty for lunch. What about steaks?"

"More than enough. The price was so good last week, I put in a big order. I shall get sufficient out of the deep freeze this morning."

"And the dessert?"

The chef smiled. "Liam has asked if he could make a pavlova, so I have given him the chance to shine."

Claire frowned dubiously at Jean-Pierre, knowing that the young sous-chef had yet to prove himself. "Then on your own head be it."

He nodded. "I will be watching him."

Claire closed the reservations book and placed the menu on top of it. "Okay, so we'll wait until Art gets back before we discuss what we'll do for dinner. Five o'clock all right for you?"

"Of course," Jean-Pierre replied, getting to his feet and replacing his hat. "When is Art coming in?"

"I'm not sure. He's gone to the bank."

The chef glanced out of the window at the teaming rain. It fell so heavily that it hazed the view of Tompkins Square Park, no more than a stone's throw on the other side of the road. "I hope he doesn't get caught in this, otherwise he will be mouillv© jusqu'aux os, wet to the skin."

"Let's hope not."

As the chef made his way back to the kitchen, Claire sat straight in her chair and stretched out her back. The rain, thank goodness, had not started falling in earnest that morning until she had arrived at the restaurant, which was situated on the corner of East Tenth and Avenue B. When she left the apartment on Gramercy Park at eight-fifteen to walk Violet to school, the sky had not seemed unduly threatening, but by the time she had seen her daughter through the school gates on East Fourteenth, a thin film of rain was falling from the darkening skies, the kind that can effectively dispel even the merest evidence of effort from newly blown-dry hair in a matter of seconds. The cheap pack-away umbrella that she all too frequently left out of her handbag was therefore a godsend, its bright tartan canopy keeping her sufficiently protected as she strode the remaining four blocks to her place of work.

However, things had changed for the worst by the time Claire returned from hanging up her coat in the small office at the back of the restaurant. Great rivulets of water poured off the striped awning outside, and in Tompkins Square any form of leisurely movement had ceased. Pedestrians huddled in pairs under inadequate umbrellas as they scampered this way and that along the crossing paths; joggers sprinted off to their destinations, not bothering to stop on the sidewalk to wait for the traffic, but leaping over gushing storm drains and dodging precariously around spray-spurting cars. In the fenced-off dog exercise area, owners rounded up their charges, cutting short their pets' moments of wild abandonment for the day, while those who frequented the park day in, day out, and who had little place else to go, still grouped themselves forlornly under the relative protection of the wide-branched trees, their woolly-hatted heads bowed miserably and their hands pushed deep into the pockets of battered army-surplus jackets and ill-fitting overcoats.

Claire expected the weather to bring on a stream of telephone cancellations, but they never materialized, and at lunchtime every table was once again filled. Besides the steadfast custom of local residents and shop owners, a constant flow of taxis and town cars pulled up outside, their wipers on full bore, delivering businessmen and their clients from the financial district downtown. For the first hour of the session, Claire had to cope alone with front-of-house, helping customers divest themselves of sodden raincoats and dripping umbrellas before showing them to their tables. This was because Art had indeed got caught in the rain on the way back from the bank and had had to return to the apartment to shower and change into a dry set of clothes.

Nevertheless, Claire, as always, was equal to the challenge. She had helped Art run Barrington's for fifteen years now and in that time had learned to keep a cool head in the face of countless difficult situations while dealing with a full house. Even power cuts and sudden staff walk-outs did not faze her.

Nor did the long hours of routine work. After lunchtime was finished, Claire and Art and their three staff set about clearing and resetting the twenty-three tables with laundered white cloths, gleaming cutlery and conically formed napkins for the evening influx of diners. While the staff then left for a couple of hours' respite, Art and Claire continued with their work, counting the lunchtime takings, checking stocks of wines and spirits and calling suppliers to arrange deliveries. Normally, one of them would have then gone to meet Violet at the school gates and walk her back to the apartment, but today, there being little respite in the weather and the extra cleaning in the restaurant resulting from it, Claire decided to ring Pilar, their housekeeper, and ask her to collect Violet in a taxi.

Six-thirty in the evening was always a low point, a time when Claire wondered if she was ever going to have sufficient energy to survive past midnight and witness the last customer leave the restaurant. As she stood at the lectern desk by the entrance door, consulting the reservations book and glancing around the tables to make sure they were all laid for the correct number of people, she felt her lids grow heavy and her vision start to swim in and out of focus. Exhaling a breath in a long whistle, she kicked off one of her flats and leaned down to give her aching foot a rub. When she felt the hand on her shoulder, she gave an involuntary jump and turned to find Art standing behind her, a frown of concern on his long angular face.

"You okay, angel?"

Claire smiled and reached up for his hand. "I'm fine. A bit exhausted, but I'll get my second wind in a moment."

"Good time then to go put your feet up," Art said, directing a thumb over his shoulder towards the office. "That's your stepfather on the telephone."

Claire screwed up her eyes. "Oh, God, Leo. I forgot it was his night to call. How does he sound?"

"Great," Art replied, "and I'd say totally on the ball. He told me it's eleven-thirty in Scotland, and he's sitting in his bathrobe with a cup of hot chocolate, and he just wants to say goodnight to you before he heads off to bed."

Claire laughed. "That doesn't mean he won't want to speak to me for ever."

Art walked over to the coffee machine, poured out a cup and handed it to her. "Go on, take as long as you want. We're all set up for the evening." He lightly brushed aside her hair and planted a kiss on her forehead and then watched as she made her way to the office, her tight black dress holding to the contours of her slim figure. "He's actually being quite funny," he called after her, "so maybe he'll give you the boost you need."

Claire closed the door of the office behind her and sat down in the high-backed swivel chair. She pulled herself into the desk and picked up the receiver. "Leo? Hullo, darling, how are you?"

Twenty minutes later, Art heard the door of the office open and turned to watch his wife walk back to the lectern desk, a new lightness in her step and a broad grin on her face. He went over to her. "What did I tell you? The old boy's in good form, isn't he?"

Claire laughed and shook her head. "Talking with Leo is like having a glass of champagne." She glanced outside at the continuing torrent. "He seems to be able to make the sun shine, even on a day like this." Dropping the pen down on the reservations book, she reached up and gave Art a long kiss. "Come on," she said, grabbing his hand and leading him towards the bar, "seeing I've mentioned it, let's for once break with tradition and have a glass of the real thing before the rush starts. I think today of all days we both deserve it."