A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE
ALSO BY MADELEINE WICKHAM
Cocktails for Three
The Wedding Girl
THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS ST. MARTIN’S PRESS NEW YORK
THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS. An imprint of St. Martin’s Press.
A DESIRABLE RESIDENCE. Copyright ? 1996 by Madeleine Wickham. All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press,
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A desirable residence / Madeleine Wickham.
“A Thomas Dunne Book.”
1. Tutors and tutoring—Fiction. 2. Adultery—Fiction.
3. Adolescence—Fiction.???4. England—Fiction.???I.??Title.
Originally published in Great Britain by Black Swan,
a division of Transworld Publishers, Ltd.
First published in the United States by Thomas Dunne Books,
an imprint of St. Martin’s Press
Second St. Martin’s Press Hardcover Edition: June 2010
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Warmest thanks to Araminta Whitley, Diane Pearson and Sally Gaminara,and to Clare Pressley
There wasn’t much point, Liz told herself, in getting upset. It wasn’t his fault, poor man.The estate agent had finished talking, and was looking at her concernedly, expecting aresponse. To gain time, she glanced out of the sash window of the office, the panes bright withthe sun and raindrops of a confused September’s day. There was a little courtyard gardenoutside, walled, with a white wrought-iron bench and tubs of flowers. It must be nice in thesummer, she thought, forgetting that this still was, to all intents and purposes, the summer.Her mind always worked at least half a term ahead.
‘Mrs Chambers .?.?. ?’
‘Oh yes, sorry,’ said Liz, and turned back. ‘I was listening.’ She smiled at the estateagent. He didn’t smile back.
‘I did warn your husband at the time the property went on the market,’ he said, ‘that thismight happen. I advised a price rather lower than your asking price.’
‘I know you did,’ agreed Liz. She wondered why he felt it necessary to remind her. Was hefeeling defensive? Did he experience a need to justify himself; explain why their house hadbeen on the market for ten months with his agency and had failed to sell? She studied hisyoung, well-shaven face for signs of I-told-you-so; if-you’d-listened-to-me .?.?.
But his face was serious. Concerned. He was probably, she thought, not the sort of person whowould countenance recriminations. He was simply pointing out the facts.
‘And now,’ he was saying, ‘you must make a decision. You have, as I see it, two realisticoptions.’ And a few unrealistic ones? Liz wanted to ask, but instead she looked intelligentlyat him, leaning forward slightly in her chair to show she was interested. She was beginning tofeel rather hot; the sun was beating brightly through the panes of glass onto her cheeks. Asusual, she had completely misjudged the early-morning weather and dressed for a brisk autumnday. She should perhaps remove a layer of clothing. But the thought of taking off her unwieldyjersey—which would necessitate first removing her spectacles and Alice band—to reveal acrumpled denim shirt, which might or might not be stained with coffee, seemed too much tocontemplate. Especially in front of this smooth estate agent. She glanced surreptitiously athim. He didn’t seem to be too hot; his face was tanned but not at all flushed and his cuffslooked crisp and cool. Starched, probably, she thought, by his girlfriend. Or perhaps, bearingin mind how young he looked, his mother. The thought amused her.
‘Two options,’ she said, more agreeably than she had intended.
A flicker of something like relief passed across his face. Perhaps he had been expecting ascene. But before Liz could react to it, he was back into well-grooved, grown-upprofessionalism.
‘The first option,’ he said, ‘would be to put your house back on the market and drop theprice considerably.’ Of course, thought Liz. Any fool could have told me that.
‘By about how much?’ she asked politely. ‘Realistically speaking,’ she added for goodmeasure, stifling a sudden, inappropriate urge to giggle. This conversation was unreal. Nextthing she’d be saying, Let’s have the cards on the table, or, Would you run that by me again.?.?. Pull yourself together, she told herself sternly. This is serious.
‘Fifty thousand pounds. At least.’
Liz’s head jerked up in shock. The giggle rising up inside her suddenly subsided; she feltshamefaced. No wonder this boy’s handsome face was so concerned. He was more worried about hersituation than she was. And, to give him his due, it was worrying.
‘We’ve already reduced it by twenty,’ she said, noting with slight horror that her voice wasshaking. ‘And that’s less than the mortgage.’
‘I know,’ he said. He looked down at the papers on his desk. ‘I’m afraid the market hasdropped considerably since you bought.’
‘Not that much. It can’t have.’ Belated worry made her belligerent. Of course she had seenthe headlines in the papers. But she’d always skimmed them with her eyes; assumed they had norelevance to her. She’d avoided the chat of friends, some overtly anxious, others smuglytriumphant. The property market this, the property market that. For heaven’s sake. Stupid
The property market .?.?. It made her think of rows of market stalls covered inphrase, anyway.
tiny houses, each with a price label tied around the chimney.
‘We can’t sell it for so little,’ she added. She could feel her cheeks growing even morehot. ‘We just can’t. We won’t have enough to pay back the bank, and we only got the mortgagefor the tutorial college on the basis of selling the house. We had some people interested in itthen; they actually made an offer.’ She stopped. A tide of humiliation seeped through her. Howmuch older than this young man was she? And here she was, blurting out all her money worries;looking to him for an answer.
But he didn’t look as though he had one. His fingers ruffled the papers on his desk anxiously;he avoided her eye. ‘I’m confident that if you reduced the asking price by the amount Isuggested, we would have a sale within a very reasonable time-scale,’ he said. He sounded asthough he was reading from a prompt card.
‘Yes, but we need more money than that!’ cried Liz. ‘We’ve got a mortgage to pay off . Andnow we’ve got a business to run. And what’s a reasonable time-scale anyway?’ Too late, sherealized her error. The estate agent’s head shot up, an unmistakable look of relief on hisface at having been given a question he could answer.
‘Ah, well, these things always take a certain length of time,’ he began. ‘We’ll bepromoting the house afresh, highlighting the reduced price, targeting a different purchaseraltogether.’
As his voice droned on, happily outlining the benefits of local advertising and colourphotography, Liz’s gaze wandered. She felt suddenly drained, worried and fearful. She had not,she realized, taken the sale of the house seriously enough. When the first buyers had pulledout, she had almost been pleased. She could hardly bear the idea of strangers in their home,using their bathroom, their kitchen, sunbathing in their garden. Even though she had been thedriving force behind the move in the first place.
Of course, Jonathan couldn’t understand that. One night, several months ago, she had brokendown in a torrent of weeping at the thought of leaving the house for good, and he had stared ather in amazement.
‘But you were the one who wanted to do all this,’ he had said, almost shouted. ‘It was youridea to buy the tutorial college in the first place.’
‘I know it was,’ she wailed, tears streaming hotly out of her eyes. ‘But I still don’t wantto leave this house.’ He gazed at her for a few seconds in stupefaction. Then his expressionchanged.
‘All right, darling, then we won’t.’ His voice suddenly firm, he lifted her chin and lookedinto her teary eyes, in a gesture straight out of a 1940s film. ‘We’ll stay here. We’ll staywhere we’re happy. I’ll phone the solicitors tomorrow.’
‘Oh Jonathan, why are you so stupid!’ Liz jerked her chin out of his grasp impatiently. Shewiped her nose with her hand and pushed it exasperatedly through her hair. A second wave oftears, feeble and benign, squeezed their way onto her cheeks. ‘You never understand anything.Of course we’re not going to stay here.’
She had given a huge, shuddering sigh, and got up to close the window. When she returned tobed, Jonathan was facing the other way, not out of resentment, she was sure, but out ofcomplete bewilderment. And she had realized that she really wasn’t being fair on him. Jonathanwas inherently cautious; naturally unambitious. It had taken a lot of her enthusiasm topersuade him into this enterprise. And here she was, weeping distressingly at him, worrying himunnecessarily.
‘Sorry,’ she had said, taking his narrow hand, watching his shoulders relax. ‘I’m justtired.’
Since then, she had gone to the other extreme; maintaining a blithe, positive approach thatswept them all along, through the documentation, delivery vans and detritus of the move; intothe shabby little flat that they were now to live in; out of safety and into precariousuncertainty. While Jonathan paced anxiously about the small, dusty rooms of their new home,searching for plug sockets; while Alice shuffled around blackly, in conspicuous, unspecifiedteenage gloom, she had been the one to smile, and throw open tea chests and sing Beatles songs,cheerfully mismatching tunes and lyrics. She had been the strong one; the face of reassurance.But now reassurance seemed to have slipped adroitly away from her, as though recognizing toogreat an adversary in the tidings of this fresh-faced, droning messenger.
‘A good interior makes all the difference,’ he was saying, as Liz’s senses snapped back intofocus. ‘There’s a lot of competition out there; people with Jacuzzi bathrooms; conservatories.?.?.’ He looked at her expectantly. ‘I don’t suppose you’d consider installing a powershower? It might help attract buyers.’
‘Instead of dropping the price?’ said Liz, in slight relief. ‘Well, I don’t see why not.’
‘As well as dropping the price, I meant,’ said the estate agent, in a tone of almostamusement. It was that tone which suddenly touched her on the raw.
‘You want us to drop the price and install a new shower?’ She heard her voice screech; felther face adopt the expression of outrage which she usually reserved for her most thoughtlesspupils. ‘Do you realize,’ she added, slowly and clearly, as though to a class of sulkysixthformers, ‘that we are selling our house because we actually need the money? That wehaven’t decided to go and live in a tiny poky flat because we want to, but because we have
to?’ She could feel herself gathering momentum. ‘And you’re telling me that because you
haven’t been able to sell our house, we’ve got to put in a new shower at a cost of goodnessknows how much, and then we’ve got to drop the price by—what was it?—fifty thousand? Fiftythousand pounds! Do you have any idea what our mortgage is?’
‘Yes, well, it’s quite a common situation you’re in,’ the young man said quickly. ‘Themajority of our clients have found themselves to be in a negative equity situation.’
‘Well, I’m afraid I don’t give a toss about your other clients! Why on earth should I careabout them?’ She wouldn’t, Liz decided as she listened to her own voice crescendo, letJonathan know that she had yelled at the estate agent. He would only get cross and worry.Perhaps even phone up to apologize, for heaven’s sake. A spurt of indignation at herhusband’s humility fuelled Liz further. ‘We put our house on the market nearly a year ago,’she shouted. ‘Do you realize that? If you’d sold it then, like you were supposed to, wewouldn’t be talking about new showers. We wouldn’t be lowering the price by such ludicrousamounts. We’d have paid off the mortgage, we’d be fine.’
‘Mrs Chambers, the property market—’
‘Sod the property market!’
‘Hear, hear!’ A rich, easy, expensive voice joined the ensemble. The estate agent started,forced a smile onto his face and swivelled in his chair. Liz, who had been about to continue,took a deep, gasping breath and looked round instead. Standing in the doorway of the office wasa man in a tweed jacket, with dark brown eyes and crow’s-feet and an amused grin. As Lizwatched, he took a couple of steps into the room and then leaned casually back against the doorframe. He looked at ease; urbane and confident, unlike the young estate agent, who had beguntwitchily rearranging the papers on his desk. The man in the tweed jacket ignored him.
‘Do carry on,’ he said to Liz, giving her a quizzical smile. ‘I didn’t want to stop you.You were saying something—about the property market?’
Jonathan Chambers was sitting by the window in the grim little office of the SilchesterTutorial College, going through the last year’s business accounts. Miss Hapland, the formerowner of the tutorial college, had done the books herself for thirty years in a manner which
had become more and more idiosyncratic as the years progressed. In the months since her death,a nephew had perfunctorily taken care of the business side of things until the place was sold,and now the books looked even more confused than before.
Jonathan frowned as he turned a page, and involuntarily wrinkled his nose at the rows offigures before him. It was a dull and wearisome job, this, which he had been tacklingmethodically at intervals since they had finally taken over the tutorial college that summer.He peered at the column headings and tried to ignore the odd ray of sunlight which playedalluringly on the paper in front of him. This was the perfect afternoon for a walk or bicycleride—and the temptation to give up and go outside for some fresh air was tremendous. But hehad told Liz he was going to spend the day sorting things out, and it wouldn’t be fair to lether down. Not when she was out doing a day’s dreary shopping and tackling Witherstone’s aboutthe house.
He paused in his thoughts, pen poised over a column of figures, and wondered how she was
Yes, Mrs Chambers,getting on. A sudden vision of a smiling estate agent popped into his mind. I was going to phone you today. We had an offer on the house yesterday. The buyers would like
. Some chance. As far as he was aware, nobody had evento complete as quickly as possible
deigned to look round the house in recent weeks. Let alone put in an offer. No one wasinterested. It was going to remain unsold. Mortgaged and unsold. The thought sent a smallshiver of panic up Jonathan’s spine.
They had only been given such a large mortgage to buy this tutorial college on the basis thattheir house would be sold within months; that they would soon be able to pay off one mortgagecompletely. But instead of that, they now had two mortgages. The size of their total borrowingwas horribly huge. Sometimes Jonathan could hardly bear to look at their mortgage statements;at the monthly repayments which seemed to loom so large on the horizon of their monthly budget,and yet eat so little into the outstanding debt.
It had never entered his mind, at the start of all this, that they might get to the stage wherethey had bought the college but not managed to sell their house. They had always taken the saleof the house for granted; had even worried that it would sell too soon, before they were readyto move out. They’d put it on the market as soon as they’d decided to have a go at buying thetutorial college; and an offer had come along within weeks, from a young couple with a toddlerand a baby on the way. A good offer; enough to cover the mortgage with some over. But they’dhesitated. At that stage they weren’t certain whether they’d be able to raise enough money tobuy the college. Was it wise to sell the house prematurely? Jonathan wasn’t sure what to do;Liz thought they should wait until their plans were firmer. So Jonathan stalled the buyers fora week while they thought about it. And during that week, the young couple found another house.
In hindsight, of course, they should have grabbed the offer while they had it. But how couldthey have known? thought Jonathan. How could they have predicted the dearth of interest intheir house that had followed? He tried to be philosophical about their predicament. ‘Thehouse will sell eventually,’ he often said to Liz, trying to convince himself as much as her.‘It will. We only need one person interested. Not twenty. Only one.’
‘We only need one, and he’s been unavoidably detained,’ he once joked, trying to jollythings up. But Liz wasn’t interested in jokes any more. For her, the sale of the house seemed,in the last few months, to have taken on a new significance. It wasn’t simply the money. Inher mind, it almost seemed a yardstick; a sign that they would succeed. It was she who hadinsisted, as the new autumn term approached, that they should move out of the house and intothe tutorial college, as they had always planned. She was almost superstitious about it. ‘Ifwe don’t move now, we’ll be admitting defeat,’ she’d wailed, when Jonathan said that in hisopinion it was no bad thing that they had a bit longer in the house, just while they got usedto running a business. ‘We’ve got to stick to the plan. We’ve got to.’ Even though, as
Jonathan pointed out several times, the plan was based on the assumption that by now, theirhouse would be sold. And even though Liz loved the house more than any of them.
There was a streak of fatalism in Liz which Jonathan found, on occasion, rather alarming. Butexperience had taught him not to argue with it. So they had moved out of their house and intothe little flat above the college, and left the house empty, waiting to be sold. Liz had been,during the days since the move, almost maniacally cheerful, as if to prove to herself andeverybody else that they’d done the right thing; Jonathan already dreaded the tumble in herspirits, which would surely come.
For himself, Jonathan really didn’t know whether they’d done the right thing or not. They’dboth given up steady teaching jobs, a comfortable life and a secure future, to take on abusiness which, while not exactly declining, had certainly seen better days. If Liz was right,they would, between them, easily kickstart it into vitality, growth and profit. If Jonathan’soccasional pessimisms were right, it was foolish for the two of them, with no businessexperience, to take on such an enterprise. But since they’d moved in, he had only onceconfided his worst fears to Liz. She had reacted savagely, as though he were accusing her ofdragging them down into ruin; as though he were blaming her for a disaster which hadn’t evenhappened.
‘For God’s sake, Jonathan,’ she’d shouted. ‘Why do you have to be so negative? I mean, youwanted to buy this place, too, didn’t you?’
‘Of course I did—’
‘And now all you can do is worry about money all the time. Oh God!’ Liz gave the tea chestshe was unpacking a little shove with her foot. ‘This is all hard enough, without you beingmiserable the whole time.’
And so Jonathan had postponed telling her that he was going to have to take out an extra loan.The original loan they’d been given to get the business going was running out, and they stillhadn’t ordered all the equipment they wanted. They needed money for the beginning of term.They needed a bit extra for emergencies. Another five thousand should cover it. Or maybe ten,to be on the safe side.
The bank had agreed immediately, pointing out in the same smooth letter that the interest rateon such a loan would necessarily be, as Mr Chambers must be aware, higher than that on the
Whilst we are confident in your ability to pay back this loan, we would pointprevious loan.
out that your total debt is now far in excess of that originally agreed. In particular, we areconcerned that you are still maintaining two mortgages. Perhaps you could update us on theproposed sale of your property in Russell Street?
Jonathan clenched his pen slightly harder, and stared out of the window. If only he could. Ifonly he could get shot of that house, once and for all.
Liz could feel her cheeks burning hotter and hotter. Both the young estate agent and the olderman in the doorway were looking at her expectantly, obviously waiting for her to explain heroutburst. She glanced at the twitchy young estate agent to see if he was going to say anything,but he was staring morosely downwards. It was up to her.
She looked up, and smiled shamefacedly at the man in the doorway. ‘I’m sorry I shouted likethat,’ she said.
‘Don’t be silly,’ exclaimed the man in the doorway. ‘Sod the property market! I couldn’tagree more. What do you think, Nigel?’
‘Well yes, perhaps it would be nice,’ said the young estate agent, a craven half-smileappearing on his face. ‘Sod the lot!’ He began to laugh, then abruptly stopped, and clearedhis throat.
‘And now,’ said the man in the doorway, turning to Liz, bestowing on her a charming smile,‘do tell me: were you just making a general observation, or did you have something specific inmind?’
‘Mrs Chambers—’ began Nigel.
‘Can tell us herself what’s on her mind,’ cut in the older man.
‘Yes,’ said Liz hurriedly, before she lost her nerve. ‘I’m sorry I got so cross,’ shebegan, ‘but really, it seems an impossible situation. We put our house on the market tenmonths ago and it hasn’t sold, and now we’ve moved and we really need to sell, and .?.?.’What was the boy’s name? Oh yes, Nigel .?.?. ‘Nigel tells me that we’re going to have todrop our price by fifty thousand and put in a power shower to attract buyers. But, I mean, wecan’t afford to do that. We’ve just bought a business, you see, and we promised the bankwe’d pay off the mortgage on the house by the end of the summer. And here we are in September.?.?.’ She spread her hands out helplessly. If she hadn’t been distracted by Nigel’s obviousgrowing discomfiture, she might have burst into tears.
‘What I said was—’ began Nigel, as soon as she stopped talking. The older man cut him offwith an upraised hand.
‘We’ll return to the power shower in a minute, Nigel. Awful things, don’t you think?’ headded confidingly to Liz. ‘Like sticking needles in your back. Give me a good old-fashionedbath.’
‘I’ve never been in a power shower,’ admitted Liz.
‘Well, my advice is, don’t bother. Now, tell me, what is this business you’ve bought?’
‘We’ve bought Silchester Tutorial College,’ said Liz, unable to stop her mouth curving intoa smile. They had actually bought a tutorial college. They were the owners of a business. Itstill gave her a thrill to articulate it; to watch for the reaction on people’s faces. Thistime it was even better than usual.
‘No! Really?’ The debonair, amused expression slipped from the man’s face, to be replaced bya disarming enthusiasm, and his eyes focused on Liz anew. ‘I was crammed for my O levelsthere. Wonderful place.’ He paused. ‘Actually, what am I saying? I still failed them all. ButI’m sure that was my fault. I was a hopeless case.’ He smiled reminiscently. ‘I was taughtEnglish by Miss Hapland herself. I think she hated me by the end of it.’
‘She’s dead now,’ said Liz cautiously.
‘Really?’ His face fell briefly. ‘I suppose she must be. She looked pretty ancient even whenshe taught me.’
‘It only happened last year,’ said Liz. ‘That’s why the tutorial college was put up forsale.’
‘And you bought it. That’s wonderful! I’m sure you’ll have a much better calibre of pupilthan I was.’
‘But you’re a graduate. You’re a qualified surveyor,’ objected Nigel, who was leaning backin his chair, staring gloomily at the ceiling. A cloud had passed over the sun; suddenly theroom seemed colder and darker.
‘Oh, I got a few exams eventually,’ said the older man impatiently. ‘Anyway, that’s not thepoint. The problem here is what to do about your house. Where exactly is it?’
‘Russell Street,’ said Liz.
‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘I know. Nice family houses. Got a garden, has it?’ Liz nodded.
‘Well, from what you’ve said, I would have thought one of your best bets might be to try andrent out your property for a while, just until prices pick up. Are you on a repaymentmortgage?’ Liz nodded. ‘Well then,’ he smiled, ‘the rental income should cover at leastpart of your monthly repayment. Maybe the whole lot, with any luck!’
‘Really?’ said Liz, feeling a flicker of hope rising inside her.
‘And there’s no shortage of prospective tenants at the moment, especially for a nice, well-located house like yours.’ He gave her a warm smile, and Liz felt suddenly overcome, as thoughhis compliment were to herself. ‘We can handle all the arrangements here, draw up a shortholdtenancy agreement, and then, when the market seems right, try and sell again. I certainly
wouldn’t be tempted down the route of power showers,’ he added, flicking an almost
It’s you and me against that idiot Nigel, his look said, and Lizimperceptible grin at her.
gazed back at him, feeling ridiculously warmed.
‘I only suggested installing a power shower in the context of my first mooted option,’ saidNigel, clearly not quite daring to adopt the defensive tone he would have liked. ‘I was aboutto proceed onto the rental option.’
‘Yes, well, perhaps you should have mentioned that first,’ said the older man, a steely notecreeping into his voice. Nigel’s back stiffened, and Liz wondered for the first time who thisstranger was. Someone important, obviously. ‘In fact,’ the man added, turning back to Liz,‘I might even know some people who are interested. A very sweet girl and her husband. She doesPR for us—you know Ginny Prentice,’ he said to Nigel, who nodded. ‘Lovely girl, husband’san actor. I’m sure she said she was thinking of taking a place down this way. Your house woulddo them perfectly.’
‘Gosh, that would be wonderful,’ said Liz. ‘But actually, I’m not sure about renting itout. I mean, we’re supposed to be selling to pay off our mortgage. The bank might not like itif we have a mortgage on the house and a mortgage on the business as well.’ She stared at him,mutely pleading, willing him to pull another rabbit out of the hat. He looked down at herconsideringly. There was a moment’s still silence.
‘Who’s your lender?’ he suddenly said.
‘Brown and Brentford.’
‘Main Silchester branch?’
‘Yes.’ There was a pause, and Nigel looked up, a look of utter disapproval on his face.
‘I’ll see if I can sort something out,’ said the man. ‘No promises, of course. But I’lltry.’ He looked kindly at her, and Liz gazed back, pink-cheeked, gratitude filling her bodylike a balloon. She suddenly wished, foolishly, that she had bothered to put her contact lensesin that morning. Then abruptly the man looked at his watch. ‘Christ. Must fly. Sorry, I’ll bein touch. Nigel will give me your details.’ He gave her another crinkle-eyed conspirator’ssmile.
‘But wait!’ cried Liz, her voice sounding shrill to her own ears. ‘I don’t know yourname!’ A look of amusement passed afresh over his face.
‘It’s Marcus,’ he said. ‘Marcus Witherstone.’
As Marcus proceeded down the corridor to his own office, he was filled with a glow ofbenevolence. It was so easy to help people, he reflected; really, very little effort for thereward of such self-satisfaction. Sweet woman; she had been so touchingly grateful. And it hadbeen worth it just to put that dreadful Nigel in his place. Marcus frowned as he pushed openthe door to his office. It was his cousin, Miles, who had hired Nigel—poached him fromEaston’s, the rival estate agency in Silchester. Said he was a young dynamic talent. Well,perhaps he was. But no amount of talent, in Marcus’s opinion, made up for that horrible nasalvoice and smug young face.
Nigel was just another of the topics on which Marcus and Miles disagreed. Only that morning,Marcus had spent a fruitless half-hour trying to persuade Miles that they ought to be branchingout into property abroad. Setting up an office on the south coast of France, perhaps. Or Spain.
‘All the big boys are doing it,’ he said, waving a collection of glossy brochures in front ofMiles. ‘Look. Villas worth half a million, a million. That’s the kind of business we shouldbe handling.’
‘Marcus,’ said Miles, in the dry, deliberate voice that he’d had since he was a small boy,‘what do you know about French property?’
‘I know that it’s an area we should definitely be going into,’ said Marcus withdetermination. ‘I’ll go over there, make some contacts, suss out the market, you know.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Miles firmly. He spoke in much the same way as he had when, agedseven, Marcus had tried to persuade him to climb out of the window of their grandparents’house and go to the village pub to buy Coke and crisps for a midnight feast. He hadn’t had anyguts then either, Marcus thought crossly. And just because he was three years older, he wieldeda tacit authority over Marcus that neither of them could quite abandon. Even though they weresupposed to be equal partners.
He stared angrily at Miles, so bloody staid, in his ridiculously old-fashioned three-piecesuit, puffing away at his stupid pipe. A pipe, for God’s sake.
‘Miles, you don’t live in the real world,’ he said. ‘Expansion’s what it’s all about.Diversification.’
‘Into areas we know nothing about? And at which we’re bound to fail?’ Miles took hisspectacles off and began polishing them on his handkerchief. ‘I think it’s you who doesn’tlive in the real world, Marcus.’ He spoke kindly, and Marcus felt a series of angry retortsrising. But he kept his mouth closed. If there was one thing Miles couldn’t tolerate, it wasconspicuous family rows at the office. ‘This is the time to be consolidating,’ Milescontinued. He replaced his spectacles and smiled at Marcus. ‘If you want to go to France, whydon’t you go there on holiday?’
Now Marcus looked aggrievedly at the glossy brochures still sitting on his desk, tantalizinghim with photographs of blue skies, swimming pools, bougainvillaea. And his own inspiredjottings: Witherstone’s Abroad. Spread your wings with Witherstone’s. Weekending abroad with
. He hadn’t even had a chance to show his slogans to Miles. But perhaps it wasWitherstone’s
just as well. He opened his bottom desk drawer and stowed the brochures inside. Maybe he wouldbring the subject up again in six months’ time. But now he had to go. He glanced at his watch.Five twenty already, and he had promised to pick up Anthea and the children from outside thelibrary at half-past.
He glanced hurriedly at the fluttering yellow post-it notes decorating his desk. They wouldjust have to wait till tomorrow, he thought, gathering up his briefcase, stuffing a few randompapers inside. But as his eye ran automatically over the messages, one suddenly stood out andgrabbed his attention. He stared at it silently for a minute, then looked around as thoughafraid of being observed, and sat casually down on his leather swivel chair, from where hecould see it better without actually touching it. It was written in the same innocent, roundedhandwriting as all the others, in the turquoise ink that was the trademark of Suzy, hissecretary. It sat benignly between a request for details of small country estates by a Japanesebusinessman and a cancelled lunch appointment. And it was unremarkably short. Could you please
.ring Leo Francis, tel: 879560
Marcus looked at his watch. Shit. Nearly twenty-five past. Anthea would probably already bestanding outside the library, looking anxiously up the road, wondering loudly to the boyswhether Daddy had forgotten to leave the office early. He looked at the phone for a torn,undecided second. Either way, the longer he sat there, the later he would be. But the thoughtof leaving it; of spending the whole evening wondering whether Leo had phoned about that—or
for some other, innocuous reason; listening to Anthea’s chatter while a secret anticipationfilled his mind and body—was unbearable. With a small surge of excitement, he picked up thereceiver and dialled the number.
‘Francis, Frank and Maloney.’
‘Leo Francis, please.’ God, even his voice was shaking.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Francis has left for the day. Can I take a message?’ Marcus stared at thephone for a moment. Leo wasn’t there. He would have to wait until tomorrow to find out. Asudden, surprising sensation of relief went through his body.
‘Just say that Marcus Witherstone called,’ he said, and put down the phone. Shit. Oh shit.What was he getting himself into?