Rosie Thomas, beloved by readers for her brilliantly realized characters and twisting, page-turning plots, turns her “sharp nib” to a group of older friends in this evocative story of camaraderie and its challenges (The Washington Post Book World).
Miranda Meadowe decides a lonely widowhood in her crumbling country house is not for her. Reviving a university dream, she invites five of her oldest friends to come live with her, and to stave off the prospect of old age. All have their own reasons for accepting. To begin with, the omens are good. They laugh, dance, drink, and behave badly as they cling to the legacy they thought was theirs forever: power, health, stability. They are the baby boomers; the world is theirs to change. But as old attractions resurface alongside new tensions, they discover the clock can’t be put back. When building work reveals an Iron Age burial site of a tribal queen, the outside world descends on their idyllic retreat, and the isolation of the group is breached. The past is revealed—and the future that beckons is very different from the one they imagined.
“A truly heart-warming story of the value of friendship and the beauty of life. I can guarantee you will not be disappointed.” —The Bookbag
“A wonderful story that explores relationships, history and change.” —She magazine
“An evocatively told story of friendship, families and relationships, sharpened by the arrival of the outside world into their idyllic country retreat.” —Choice
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The old house has been cold and empty for so long, but now it's stirring. A joint of the oak stair treads releases a sudden sharp snap, a window left open for air rattles in a gust of wind, and the scent of baking rises from the kitchen.
The place is coming back to life around me.
I am making cakes for tea, and already I have looked into each of the guest rooms at least three times in order to enjoy the sight of folded towels and the little jugs of flowers placed on chests of drawers. Meadow flowers from Mead fields; oxeye daisies, and cow parsley, which has shed a faint dust of grey pollen on the waxed wood. I reach out to sweep away the powder with my little finger, before deciding that it looks pretty as it is.
Not that my old friends will be guests, of course.
They will belong here, they do belong here, that's why they are coming. I'm excited at the prospect, the pleasure of anticipation tautened with nerves, like a child before a birthday. This thought makes me laugh as I close the bedroom door. Childhood is a very long way off, for all of us. That's part of the story.
It's already four o'clock. A hot afternoon, for September. Only the angle of the sun, which has altered from full day to the first suggestion of evening just while I have been lingering in a doorway, suggests that autumn stalks not far off.
They'll be here soon.
As I walk down the stairs the longcase clock that stands in the hall chimes the hour, echoed today by the faint, damped note of the village church bell. You can only hear the church bell ringing when the wind blows from the south-west, Jake told me that when he first brought me here.
My late husband would be pleased with what's happening at Mead. I'm sure he would. I whisper to him in my head, as I sometimes do, in the way people who have become used to living alone conduct imaginary dialogues.
We lived our time here just the two of us, Jake, and came neither to want or need any other company. But without you there is too much time and silence. The house withers, and so do I.
From today there will be a new order, and different voices in the old rooms and outside under the heavy trees. The novelty, though, will have a retrospective glimmer that suits Mead, feeding it like wax polish on old wood. Selwyn and Amos and the others are your old friends as well as mine. Although this plan of mine will throw us all into new alignments, we have years of history between us.
In the kitchen I lift the tins out of the oven and turn out my cakes to cool on wire racks near the open window. A huge bumble bee flusters against the glass so I find a muslin-covered frame to place over them. But I find myself standing, lost in thought, my fingers still gripping the harmless frame as the bee escapes into the breeze.
I want this experiment to succeed. I want it so much.
From three different directions, three vehicles were converging on the old house in its cradle of fields and trees.
Selwyn Davies cursed as he ground the gears of the borrowed van yet again.
'This thing is a heap of shit. It's knackered. It's about as old as me, and just as useless.'
His partner didn't look up from the newspaper she held in two hands, braced at chest level. Partner is a gruesome bloody word, Polly would say, but what are you supposed to call the person you never married but have lived with for thirty years and have three kids by?
'You're not old, or useless. Stop saying you are.'
'Is there any more tea in the flask, Poll?'
She sighed. 'Do you want to stop?'
'No. I just want some tea.'
'Am I? Oh, right. Thanks. Might have overlooked that if you hadn't reminded me.'
Polly smiled. 'It's not far now. I'd offer to drive, if I thought you'd agree to change over.'
'This gearbox. You wouldn't want to tangle with it, my love, believe me.'
Polly roughly folded her newspaper and rummaged in the Tesco bag at her feet. She brought out a dented Thermos flask, wedged it between her knees to remove the cup lid and unscrew the cap beneath, then poured the last dregs of beige tea. She nestled the cup in Selwyn's outstretched hand.
'Ta.' He drained the tea at a gulp, gave the cup back without looking at her. He shifted from buttock to buttock and stretched his neck in a futile attempt to ease the perennial ache in his back, then wound down the window and rested his elbow on the sill. Draught tore through the cab of the van, harrying Polly's newspaper and blowing his hair into a demented-looking crest. They reached the crown of a low hill and gathered speed. Selwyn tapped the dial and crowed, 'Look at that. Fifty mph.'
'Downhill, with a following wind,' they both added.
They often said the same things at the same time. Studying Selwyn as he drove, his teeth bared in a grimace and his fists locked on the wheel, Polly thought he looked like a pirate. She still found him attractive, even after thirty years. He made her laugh, and at other times the stab of love for him made her catch her breath.
'You know,' he said as they slowed to a crawl up the next hill, 'I never thought I'd end up going to live with her.'
'You live with me, Sel. Having her next door is a domestic technicality, not a contract in the biblical sense.'
He seemed to turn this over in his mind.
'It's her place. She's milady of the manor, isn't she?'
'It's our place. We're making it ours, from now on. That's the whole idea.'
'We'll see how it turns out. Anyway,' he added with a flash of a grin, 'it's too late now, eh?' Selwyn loved the whiff of burning boats, and the wild leap for freedom out of the snapping jaws of disaster. It made him a tiring companion, but an interesting one.
'Yup.' Polly disentangled her newspaper, and seemed to concentrate on the arts pages.
In one of the two cars that were heading towards Mead, a silver Jaguar driven very confidently by her husband at unnecessarily high speed, Katherine Knight imagined how an eye in the sky might see them all. Three specks of metal, flashing an occasional point of light when chrome caught the sun, moving through a chequerboard of pasture and crops. Where they were going there was only farmland, and a scatter of villages, and then the white-laced edge of the land where it broke off into the sea. Katherine let out a small gasp, as if she were thinking so hard about what was to come that she had actually forgotten to breathe. Amos Knight glanced at her. He was wearing a blue shirt, crisply ironed, the cuffs folded back.
'Are you happy?'
It was an unusual question, for Amos. She said at once, 'Yes. Excited, too. What about you?' He changed down with a dextrous flick and accelerated past a muck-spreader that was leaving a trail of brown clods on the crown of the road. He raised a hand, flat-palmed, in a magisterial salute as the other driver dwindled to a speck in the rear-view mirror.
'Good, good. That's what I like to hear.'
He concentrated on her answer and ignored the question. It had always been a trick of his to act as if he bestowed everything upon her, as if her life itself somehow flowed from its source in him and its abundance was his generous gift.
Katherine let her head fall back against the leather of the seat headrest.
It was rather impressive, in a way, that he felt he could still do this to her. Of course, she acknowledged scrupulously, in the economic sense he did provide. Amos was a barrister specializing in tax matters, whereas she was the administrator of a small medical charity. He earned per year – or rather had earned, she wasn't quite sure what would be happening in the future – rather more than twenty times her annual salary. That was a lot of money. He paid for their handsome house, deposits on flats for their two boys, holidays in the Caribbean or the Maldives, the various bouts of their joint entertaining, most of her clothes.
But, she had taken to telling herself, his money and recent professional status didn't mean that he owned her, nor that she had no existence apart from him. Not now, not any longer. Katherine now knew that as a person, as a good human being with solid worth, if she were somehow to be placed in the opposite pan to him on a pair of moral scales, her metal might not shine as brightly as his but she would still outweigh him.
Yes, she would.
Out of the corner of her eye Katherine looked at the chino-clad bolster of his thigh and wondered why it was that her attempts at self-affirmation never quite succeeded, even in her own estimation.
Amos was Amos, and she tended to get washed up on the granite cliffs of him like a small boat driven in a gale on to the Chilean shore.
They were driving through a village, its main street set with small grey stone terraced houses that broke up in places to reveal vistas of new bungalows set behind them. A group of resentful teenagers stared out from a glass and steel bus shelter like ruminants from a pen at the zoo. Amos patted the palms of his hands on the wheel, then brightened.
'Are you hungry?' he asked, which meant that he was.
On a corner of the long street he had spotted a teashop. He braked and the Jaguar slid in to the kerb.
'We said we'd be there for tea,' Katherine remarked. Amos got out of the car, came around and held open the door for her.
'There's no hurry. We've got a lifetime at Mead ahead of us.'
For a moment, she imagined he had said life sentence.
The teashop was cool, with a stone-flagged floor and a cluster of mismatched chairs and tables. Amos sat down at the table in the window and Katherine took her place opposite him. He chosescones and cream for both of them, and wedges of Victoria sponge and fruit cake, chatting with the waitress as she took the order. He had always had a big appetite, and lately he seemed even hungrier for food.
'We don't have to eat it all,' he laughed at her protest, 'but you know I love cake.'
Katherine acquiesced. It was restful sitting in the window of what must once have been the village shop, with the traffic trickling by outside. The country was a slower place, they would both have to learn that. Gripped by affection as well as happy anticipation, she leaned across and put her hands over Amos's.
'We're at the beginning, aren't we?' she said. 'A new place, a different way to live, but still with the benefit of everything we have learned. That's all right, isn't it?' Then, knowing that what they both knew really couldn't be construed as all right, she added hastily, 'Remember what we were like, all of us, when we met?'
'Only vaguely, thank God.'
He withdrew one hand, then the other, and as soon as the waitress put the plate in front of them he started work on the scones. He began to talk about their rather famous architect. The woman had promised to send a revised set of drawings for part of their magnificent new house, to be built at Mead on a plot of land purchased from Miranda, but had failed to do so before they left for this inaugural weekend.
The teenagers had broken out of the corral of the bus shelter. Now they lurched up the street in a mob, arms and legs shooting out of the central mass. They enveloped Amos's glimmering silver Jaguar and one of them tweaked the nearside wing mirror, which instantly lent the car a comical lop-eared appearance. Amos was concentrating on loading jam onto the second half of scone and didn't see what was happening, but Katherine watched. Without feeling much concern for the car, she hoped that they would move on before her husband noticed the assault on his property and caused a scene.
One of the bigger boys glanced up and caught her eye. He bounded across the pavement and pressed himself up against the café window. He had a broad red face, hummocked with pimples,which he brought up against the glass, misting it with his breath. His mouth opened wider and suckered itself to the glass, lips paling as his tongue licked a trail through the dust in a lingering smooch. Katherine gazed with interest at this spectacle as Amos bit into his scone. Behind the window boy, the rest of the group were pulling the wipers of the car to the vertical, rocking on the rear bumper and trying to prise open the doors.
She coughed slightly as the boy doing the kissing formed a tube with the fingers and thumb of his right hand and waggled it at her.
Amos did look around now. The boy immediately detached himself and ran, leaving a wet smear on the window like the trail of a giant mollusc.
'Bloody feral kids, same everywhere,' Amos growled, through crumbs and jam. The other boys dashed after their leader, hooting as they went.
'Christ, look what they've done,' Amos roared, suddenly noticing.
Katherine tucked away a smile as she looked at the car, wing mirrors drooping and wipers standing erect.
'More tea?' she asked.
Selwyn negotiated a lane lined with trees that looked leaned-upon by the wind. He swung the wheel sharply and steered the van through a pair of lichenous gateposts topped with stone balls twice the size of a man's head.
The drive curved under more trees, then straightened, and Mead revealed itself against its ancient green backdrop. At its heart was an old flint building with bigger Georgian windows than the original farmhouse construction had featured, which gave it a slightly startled aspect. A modest porte cochère, also a later addition to the fabric, framed the double front door. The plaster was falling in chunks from the bases of the fluted pillars. On either side of the original house, short, unmatching wings had been added at later dates, partly in reddish-orange brick and partly in flint. The overall effect was harmonious but not at all grand, as if the house had quietly expanded according to requirements over several hundred years without any particular design having been set or followed.
The van coasted over the gravel and came to rest at a tangent to the circular flowerbed that formed the centrepiece of the front courtyard. The scent of lavender flooded the cab.
Polly looked through the insect-spotted windscreen at the russet and grey façade of the house. There was moss growing beneath broken sections of lead guttering, and the paintwork of the front door was faded, but the size of it and the almost magical seclusion of the setting never failed to impress her. Mead was a beautiful place to end up, she reflected. If ending up was actually what was happening.
In the front doorway, framed by the pillars, Miranda Meadowe appeared. She held open her arms.
Selwyn vaulted out of the van and trampled through lavender and leggy roses. He wrapped his arms around Miranda's narrow torso and swung her off her feet, laughing and kissing her neck.
'Babs, darling Barb, we thought we'd never get here.' He took in a great breath of air, 'Ah, smell that countryside, will you? It's ripe with pure cow. Or is it sheep? Now we are here we're never going to leave. Are we, Poll? So you'd better get used to it. I hope it isn't all a mistake, is it, Barb? You haven't changed your mind?'
Polly followed behind him, skirting the flowerbed. Her hips and buttocks and breasts made a series of globes, tending towards one circular impression as she moved.
'Put me down, Sel,' Miranda protested. 'No, of course I haven't changed my mind. Hello, Polly, love. Welcome to Mead. Welcome home.'
The two women kissed each other, hands patting each other's upper arms where the flesh was soft.
'Thanks, Miranda,' Polly murmured. 'Here we are. I'm very glad.'
Selwyn called Miranda Barbara mainly because he could. They had known each other since their first term at university, the almost prehistoric time when Miranda had still been Barbara Huggett, fresh from her divorced mother's semi in Wolverhampton. When Barbara took the part of Miranda in the University Players' production of The Tempest, in which Selwyn played Trinculo, she decided that as a name for a black-haired siren with a future in theatre, Miranda had a lot more going for it than Barbara ever would.
It was a considerable number of years after that that she finally met and married Jacob Meadowe, farmer and landowner.
'Come on in,' Miranda beamed.
She danced her way through the house, past the handsome staircase and the doors opening to the drawing room, and a shuttered dining room where the table was already laid with six places for dinner.
'When are the others getting here?' Selwyn called, peering in at the glimmer of silver candlesticks.
The final establishment of the new households would take some more time, but with her developed sense of theatre Miranda had decreed that there should be a weekend gathering to mark the beginning of their new association.
'Now,' Miranda said, with her wide smile. It was nearly five o'clock.
This was the weekend.
The kitchen was warm, with one of the solid fuel ranges that Polly thought a country living cliché and quite impossible to cook on, and which Miranda claimed to love like a dear friend. The floor was red quarry tiles, starred and pocked with a history of dropped saucepans and tracked with the passage of generations. There was a built-in dresser running the length of one wall, its shelves crowded with mismatched china, and a scrubbed table in the centre. Polly lowered herself into a Windsor chair painted some shade of English Heritage blue to match the legs of the table.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lovers and Newcomers"
Copyright © 2010 Rosie Thomas.
Excerpted by permission of The Overlook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
By the same author,
Ben and Nicola,
Alpha and Omega,
Alpha, Omega and Ben,
Sam and Toby,
Jessie and Nic,
About the Author,