Rosie Thomas, “a master storyteller” has been enrapturing readers, earning awards, and garnering critical praise for more than three decades (Cosmopolitan). In Other People’s Marriages, she offers a breathtaking look at marriage and relationships, with “the five families”—the pleasantly hospitable Frosts, the brash and sexy Cleggs, flirtatious Jimmy Rose and aloof Star, maternal Vicky and reliable Gordon Ransome, Michael Wickham and his perfect wife, Marcelle. Old friends, their lives are interwoven in a comfortable pattern of school runs and Sunday golf, barbecues, and shared holidays.
Until Nina Cort returns to the cathedral city of her childhood. Rich sophisticated and newly widowed, Nina is an exotic thread in the pattern, whose intrusion reveals a web of hidden flaws. In the course of a year from which none will emerge unscathed, the five families and Nina discover that you can never truly know the fabric of other people’s marriages. Perhaps not even of your own . . .
“Bestselling author Thomas traces an insightful and touching tale of love found and sustained in her latest novel of contemporary domestic mores . . . A book filled with major pleasures, the foremost of which is Thomas’s vivid and realistic depiction of men and women struggling to sustain romantic and erotic love amid the draining demands of family life.” —Publishers Weekly
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It was the end of October. As London receded and the motorway bisected open country they saw the flamboyant colours of the trees. Autumn in the city was a decorous affair of fading plane trees and horse chestnuts, just one more seasonal window display, but here the leaves made fires against the brown fields and silvery sky.
'Look at it,' Nina said. 'There's no elegant restraint out here, is there? That's real countryside. Where I belong now. How does the poem go?'
She knew it perfectly well, but she shifted cautiously through the layers of her memory that contained it. Memory could still play tricks on her, bringing her up against some scene or a view or simply some remembered words that would make her cry. She had cried more than enough for now.
'"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,"' Patrick supplied for her.
'Yes, that's it.'
The poem brought to mind completion, or rather the conclusion of some important cycle, and the slow but inevitable stilling of the blood and consequent decay that must come after it.
Nina turned her head and stared out of the rear window as if she hoped to catch a last glimpse of London. There was nothing to be seen except the road, and the traffic, and the unreticent scenery. She had left London, and had not yet arrived anywhere else. It was as if the expansive world she had unthinkingly occupied had shrunk until it was contained within Patrick's car. 'It's how I feel, rather.'
'You are not particularly mellow.'
She laughed, then. 'Nor fruitful.'
'You have your work, that's fruit. And you are only thirty-five.'
And so even though she was a widow there was still time for her to meet and marry another man, and to mother a brood of children if she should wish to do so. Not much time, but enough. In his kindly way Patrick did not want her to lose sight of this, although he was too tactful to say it aloud. She was grateful for his consideration, but with another part of herself Nina also wished that her loving friends would stop being so careful now. She thought that she needed someone to shout at her:
Your husband is dead but YOU are ALIVE and you must bloody GET ON with it.
It was what she was trying to shout at herself. Going to Grafton, coming to Grafton, rather, now that they were on the road and more than halfway there, was part of getting on with it.
Nina reached out one hand and put it on Patrick's leg, above the knee, and felt the solid warmth of him caught in the thickness of his clothes. He didn't shrink, didn't even move, but Nina quickly lifted her hand and settled it back with the rest of herself, where it belonged. She felt, as she quite often did nowadays, that Richard's death had removed her from the corporeal world just as conclusively as it had removed him. Widows didn't touch. They accepted unspeaking hugs and silent pats on the shoulder and strokings of their cold hands, but they didn't reach out themselves for the reassurances of the flesh.
'Thank you for driving me all this way.'
He took his eyes off the road for a single second to look at her. Patrick was a careful driver, as his car proclaimed. It was a sensible estate model, armoured with heavy bumpers and crumple zones. Today the rear seats were folded down and the most precious and valuable of Nina's belongings were packed inside. The rest of her things were in the removal van, somewhere on the same road.
'I wanted to drive you. I want to see you properly settled in the house.'
He returned his eyes to the road. A German tour bus swelled in the rear window, and he moved aside at once to let it pass. Richard would have stamped down hard on the accelerator and sent his frivolous car swirling ahead. Nina peered up at the faces behind the skin of glass. They were elderly couples, on a good holiday, intent on enjoyment together. She pinched on the blister of her own sadness before it could pointlessly inflate.
'Do you want to stop off somewhere for a cup of tea?' Patrick asked her.
'No, not unless you do. Let's just get there.'
There was a basket in the back of the car in which she had packed the kettle, cups and tea for themselves and the removal crew, as an article on moving house in a homemaking magazine had advised her to do. In the days before the move Nina had become a paragon of organization. She had made dozens of lists, adding and crossing off, defining and redefining her intentions. She would not be caught out in the small issues, at least. Every box and carton and piece of furniture was labelled with its eventual destination in the new house, she had measured and checked every dimension twice, she knew the whereabouts of every necessary key and switch and security code.
It was the large issues that were more problematic, like whether she was right to be moving, or whether she was insane to do it, as most of her loving friends certainly suspected.
'Are you okay?' Patrick asked.
She smiled sideways at him. 'Fine.'
The countryside unscrolled alongside them. In an hour, more or less, they would be in Grafton.
The great twin towers of the cathedral were visible first. They stood with the town drawn around them in the quiet and fertile fields enclosed by a rim of little grey hills. It was a perfectly English prospect. The pilgrims who came to Grafton five hundred years before would have had the same view as they wound their way down from the chalk uplands.
The town had grown some ugly outskirts since Nina's childhood. Coming from the London road they did not go by the new business park set in its landscaped gardens. Instead, on this eastern side, there was a huge red-brick supermarket, an estate of miniature red-brick houses shuffled close together, a pair of petrol stations confronting one another across a stream of cars, and a Little Chef. The road became a maze of roundabouts and traffic lights, and litter whirled up in the wind.
'Drive straight through,' Nina said, wanting to apologize for this modern mess. Patrick pointed the car towards the cathedral towers.
Once they had crossed the river by the Old Bridge, they were in the old town where the medieval streets curled in their protective pattern towards the cathedral and the close. It was four o'clock in the afternoon, the traffic was curdled and there were crowds of shoppers on the pavements, mothers with buggies and schoolchildren and pensioners outside Boots, but the sight of the place made Nina happy. The superficial look of it had changed, but the bones of it were the same as they had been when she was growing up, the same as they had been for hundreds of years, and the bones were beautiful.
The pale limestone of the buildings was butter-soft in the late sun. The curves of the streets, Southgate and Coign Street and Drovers, were graceful, and the proportions of the houses and the lines of their roofs were intimate and pleasing. There was a glimpse of a cobbled square through an archway, and the grey front of a Norman church.
'Where now?' Patrick asked.
Nina pointed. There was a narrow entry, just wide enough for the car, where the stone of the old walls was pocked and darkened with the rubbing of countless shoulders.
They passed through the entry and came out into the glory at the heart of Grafton, the cathedral green with the close to one side behind high walls and the great west front of the cathedral itself.
Patrick looked up at the wide tiers of golden stone, the carved companies of faceless saints and archangels in their niches, ranked upwards and rising between the exuberance of columns and piers, to the vast darkened eye of the west window and the height of the Gothic pinnacles towering above.
'I had forgotten how very grand it is,' he murmured at last.
Nina was pleased, possessive.
'I forget, too. Every time it amazes me. There's my house.'
To one side of the green, forming its northern border, there was a terrace of fine Georgian houses. There were four wide steps with iron railings leading up to each front door, and the balconies to the tall first-floor windows were an intricate tracery of wrought-iron leaves. Nina's new house was in the middle of the row, looking directly out over the mulberry tree in the centre of the green.
As she climbed out of Patrick's car, stretching her legs and easing her shoulders after the confinement of the long drive, she stopped for a moment to gaze up at her own blank windows.
'When I was a little girl I always said that I wanted to live in Dean's Row. My mother used to laugh. "Why settle for that?" she used to say. "Why not the Bishop's Palace itself?" The answer was always that I didn't want to marry the Bishop because he had funny teeth.'
Patrick came to stand beside her.
'And now here you are.'
She heard the silent rider, Maybe it isn't such a half-arsed scheme to come and live down here, as clearly as if he had enunciated it.
'Have you got the keys?'
Nina took the heavy bunch out of her bag and held it up. 'Yale, Chubb and burglar alarm.'
Patrick waited beside his car and let her go alone up the four steps to unlock the door.
* * *
She liked the house empty, like this. She could see and admire the ribs and joints of it. In the drawing room the oak floorboards were two handspans broad, smooth and glowing with age. The window shutters folded into their own recesses in the panelling with seductive precision, and the thin glazing bars divided the glass and the late afternoon light into eighths, sixteenths, tidy fractions. Over her head in the hallway the curving wrought-ironwork of the stair rails sprang up from each stone tread and drew her upwards through the centre of the house. The bedrooms were square, well-proportioned, each with its iron grate and painted overmantel. The house was much too big for her, but that did not matter particularly. Richard had left her wealthy. The memory of that, the surprising figures contained in his will, could still catch her off-balance.
At the top of the house the previous owners had created a studio. The slope of the pitched roof, concealed by a low parapet from the green and the cathedral's west porch, was a sheet of glass. There were the Gothic pinnacles, seeming to float above Nina's head in the breadth of the sky.
It was here that she would work. Her plan chests and her drawing board and her desk would be installed, neat and complete, with her boxes of paints and coloured ranks of inks and pencils. Nina was an illustrator of children's books, her work much admired.
Patrick's voice rose from a long way beneath her.
He was standing outside the drawing room. The door stood ajar behind him, to admit a view of the mulberry tree and of the saints and archangels in their stone niches.
'What do you think?'
'It's wonderful. A beautiful house.'
She put her arms around him and hugged him. Again she felt the resistance – not rejection, but containment – that told her he didn't know what to do with her. It wasn't that she expected anything. Patrick was gay. She had known that for all the ten years they had been friends. But his awkwardness emphasized that her bereavement and the sympathy which followed it had set her apart. She was separate. She was to be treated with care, when in reality her grief and her needs made her long to be pulled in, peremptorily handled, to be loved so roughly that the memories were obliterated. Nina longed for it, bled for it.
'Shall we go down to the kitchen and have some tea?'
Patrick patted her shoulder. 'Excellent.'
He had unloaded the boxes from the back of his estate car and stacked them inside the front door.
'You should have waited for me to help you carry that in.'
'Nina, darling, if I can't manhandle a few packing cases, who can?' Patrick dealt in antiques, singlehandedly and rather discriminatingly, from his house in Spitalfields. His speciality was early English oak.
Nina said quickly, 'I'm grateful for everything you've done. Not just today, but ever since Richard died.'
Patrick had come to her directly, on that first afternoon, after the telephone call from the house in Norfolk.
'It's okay,' Patrick said. 'You know where I am if you need me.'
She did know, but she was also convinced, with a sudden lift of her spirits, that she had done the right thing to sell the houses and the cars, to put Richard's modern art collection in store, and come to Grafton. She couldn't remake herself in London except as Richard Cort's widow. Here, she was free to make herself what she would.
The kitchen was in the basement. There were Smallbone cupboards, painted teal blue, expanses of brick and slate. French windows looked out on a small paved yard at the back of the house. Nina took the kettle out of the basket, filled it, plugged it in and set out the cups and saucers. Patrick prowled behind her, opening the doors into the larder and the utility room, inspecting empty cupboards and wine bins and sliding drawers in and out on their smooth runners.
Nina did not much care for this kitchen. The opulent rusticity of it was not to her taste. In London, with Richard and for their friends, she had cooked in a functional space of stainless steel and black granite. But she did not plan to change this place, because it would not be the centre of this house as her old kitchen had been in the last one. She would cook for herself, as quickly as possible, and that would be all.
She poured out the tea and handed Patrick his cup. For the lack of anywhere else to sit they hoisted themselves up and perched side by side on one of the worktops. Patrick gave his characteristic short snuffle of amusement.
'Look at these dinky cut-outs and finials. I'm surprised there are no stencilled flowers.'
'I could paint some in. You're right, though. Richard wouldn't have liked it, would he?'
In London they had also lived in a Georgian house. But Richard's architect had gutted the interior. He had made it a series of huge, light spaces and they had furnished it sparsely. Richard had also owned a modern apartment, where he set out the growing collection of paintings and sculpture and where they sometimes gave parties, and then there had been the house near the sea in Norfolk, stone-floored and thick-walled. These solid, geometric places had contained their life together, and after his death Nina had been unable to contemplate their emptiness. She had sold them, and added even more money to his startling legacy. Richard had been a lawyer, who had also bought and converted and sold property. The mid-eighties had made him rich, although it was not until after he died that Nina realized exactly how rich.
Patrick drank his tea and regarded her. Nina sat with her shoulders hunched forward, her fingers laced around her cup. She looked composed, quite well able to make her own decisions and order her life, as she had always done. He admired her, and her strength. He had witnessed other deaths recently and observed their effects on those who were left behind, and Nina's levelness impressed him,
He asked, 'Is that why you've come here?'
'Because a cathedral close, a little place like Grafton, and this house are so much not Richard's kind of thing?'
'Partly so. Also I like the feeling that I belong here. There is a sense of being rooted. That's important, isn't it?'
Patrick, who had grown up in Ilford, let it pass.
'Don't you know anyone here any more?'
'Not a soul.'
Nina was an only child. She had spent her childhood and youth in Grafton, but she had left to go to art school when she was eighteen. Her parents had moved away less than a year later, and both of them were dead now. Her remaining links with the town had long ago broken. She laughed suddenly.
'I'll be able to recreate myself entirely, with no one looking over my shoulder. Don't you envy me the chance to get rid of those tiresome labels that people attach to one over the years? Nina doesn't like curry, knows nothing about music, always cries in those sentimental French films.'
He nodded, agreeing with her. 'Patrick drives like an old lady, is such a coffee snob, will never learn to ski.'
They were both laughing now, with affection.
'Don't make yourself too different. All your friends who love you like you are will miss you.'
'I won't.' Nina was thinking, If I start again, away from the places we knew together, I won't feel left behind. Is that a naive expectation?
Upstairs there was a heavy double thump on the door knocker. The men had arrived with the van.
Patrick directed the unloading. The job took less time than he had expected, because Nina had brought so little with her. There were a few pieces that he remembered from the London house, a Queen Anne chest on chest, some Beidermeier that would look well in the plain, square rooms, sofas and chairs, and a French bateau lit. Within two hours the van was emptied and the men were on their way home again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Other People's Marriages"
Copyright © 1993 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.
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