Laura is a content married mother of two—but when her first love resurfaces after twenty years, she begins to question her choices. She can’t help but compare the passion of that relationship with the domesticity of her suburban life. What if she’d stayed with him? Would she be happier? And what is happiness, really?
Right now, Laura feels a little alone. But in fact, many others in her gentrified corner of the English countryside—including a rector who’s lost his faith, a frustrated school teacher, and a successful single mother who can’t get over her ex—are struggling with their own personal crises as well . . .
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She recognizes the handwriting on the envelope. She drinks from her mug of tea, looks across the kitchen table at Henry, sees him absorbed in the triage of the morning post. One pile for the bin, one pile for later, one for now. He uses a paper knife when opening letters. Not a kitchen knife, an actual slender, dull-edged blade made for the purpose. The children silent, reading. Rain outside the windows puckering the pond.
Laura wills the letter to remain unnoticed. It's been forwarded from her parents' address.
'You know Belinda Redknapp?' she says.
'Should I?' Henry inattentive.
'One of the school mothers. You rather fancied her. Husband like a frog.'
'They all have husbands like frogs.'
The bankers, lawyers, insurance company executives whose children are their children's friends, whose wealth makes Henry feel poor.
'Anyway, she wants to meet Aidan Massey.'
Henry looks up, surprised.
'She thinks he's sexy.'
Carrie pauses her absorbed scrutiny of the Beano.
'The man on Daddy's programme.'
'He's an evil dwarf,' says Henry. 'I want to kill him.'
The letter lies by her plate, immense as a beach towel, shouting her unmarried name: Laura Kinross. She wants to muffle it, mute it, gag it. Pick up a section of the newspaper, glance at it, lay it down just so. But the desire inhibits the action. She's ashamed to discover that she means to leave the letter unopened until Henry has gone. So to mitigate the shame she makes no move to conceal the envelope, saying to Fate, See, I'm doing nothing. If I'm found out I'll accept the consequences.
Jack is interested in the proposal to kill Aidan Massey.
'How would you kill him, Daddy?'
'Hello, Jack. Good to have you with us.'
Laura frowns. She reaches out one hand to stop Jack smearing his sleeve in the butter. She hates it when Henry talks like that. Jack's too dreamy, he says.
'Well.' Henry puts on the face he makes when summoning facts from his brain. He actually touches one finger to his brow, as if pressing a button. 'I'd tell the make-up girl to go on adding make-up until he couldn't breathe. Go on adding it until he's got no features left. Just smooth and round like a ball.'
Jack is awed silent by the detail.
Henry gathers up the pile of junk mail and takes it to the bin, which is already so full the lid won't close. He rams the wad of paper down hard. This action makes Laura flinch, because now it will be impossible to remove the bin bag without ripping it, but she says nothing. She is, it strikes her, lying low.
Henry reaches for his leather bag, which is bursting with printed matter.
'Oh, yes,' he tells Jack, suddenly remembering. 'I read your composition. I loved it.'
'No. I did. I loved it.' He leans down for a kiss, Jack back reading Tintin. 'I'm off. Love you.'
Laura gets up. She moves slowly because she wants to move fast, to draw Henry out into the hall, out of sight of the letter. She squeezes between Carrie's chair and the dresser, remembering as she does so that last night Carrie had been in tears.
'Better now, darling?' she whispers as she passes.
'Yes,' says Carrie.
Laura knows her behaviour is undignified and unnecessary. Surely the past has lost its power. Twenty years ago almost, we're different people, I had long hair then. So did he.
'When will you be home?'
'Christ knows. I'll try to be on the 6.47.'
Rain streaking the flint wall. He kisses her in the open front doorway, a light brush of the lips. As he does so he murmurs, 'Love you.' This is habitual, but it has a purpose he once told her. Henry suffers from bursts of irrational anxiety about her and the children, that they'll be killed in a car crash, burned in a fire. He tells them he loves them every day as he leaves them because it may be the day of their death.
Recalling this, watching his familiar tall disjointed frame even as he steps out into the rain, Laura feels a quick stab of love.
'I think that letter may be from Nick,' she says.
'Nick?' His head turning back. Such a sweet funny face, droll as Stan Laurel, and that fuzz of soft sandy hair. 'Nick who?'
She sees the name register. A family legend, or possibly ghost.
'Nick Crocker! Whatever happened to him?'
'I've no idea. I haven't opened the letter yet.'
'Oh, well.' Henry shakes open an umbrella. 'Got to rush. Tell me this evening.'
Nothing urgent in his curiosity. No intimation of danger. His footsteps depart over the pea-beach gravel towards the Golf, parked in front of the garage that is never used for cars. Laura goes back into the kitchen and harries the children into readiness for the school run. She's glad she told Henry, but the fact remains that she left the telling to the last minute. She had known it in the same moment that she had recognized the handwriting. She would open the letter alone.
A dull roar in the drive heralds the arrival of Alison Critchell's Land Cruiser. This immense vehicle parts the falling rain like an ocean liner. Laura stands under an umbrella by the driver window conferring with Alison on the endless variables of the run. Jack and Carrie clamber in the back.
'Angus is staying late for cricket coaching. Phoebe may be having a sleepover at the Johnsons. Assume it's on unless I call.' The litany of names that bound Laura's life. 'Assume the world hasn't ended unless you see flaming chariots in the sky.'
'What if they cancel the chariots?'
'The bastards. They would, too.'
The wry solidarity of school-run mothers. Laura confirms all she needs to know.
'So it's just my two at five.'
She waves as they drive off. Carrie is demanding about the waving. Laura must wave as long as they remain in sight. The car is so wide it creates a hissing wake through the spring verges, and the cow parsley rolls like surf. The drenched morning air smells keen, expectant. Who is it who loves the month of May? 'I measure the rest of my life by the number of Mays I will live to see.' Henry, of course, ever death-expectant. How could he have slipped so far from her mind?
Seated now at her work desk in what was once the dairy Laura Broad addresses the day ahead. Deliberate and unhurried, she makes a list of people she must call and things she must do. The letter lies unopened before her. This is how as a child she ate Maltesers. One by one she would nibble off the chocolate, leaving the whitish centres all in a row. Then pop, pop, pop, in they would go one on top of the other, in an orgy of delayed gratification. Even so it sometimes seemed to her as she tracked the precise moment of pleasure unleashed that there was a flicker of disappointment. Here I am, whispered the perfect moment. I am now. I am no longer to come.
She studies her list. 'Call Mummy about Glyndebourne.' Does being organized mean not being creative? 'Laura possesses the ability to achieve set tasks,' a teacher wrote when she was thirteen years old. Even then she had felt the implied criticism: a follower not a leader. A natural aptitude for cataloguing. Henry said once, 'You'd make a good fanatic.' He can be surprisingly perceptive. No, that's unfair. Henry is capable of great perception; only he isn't always looking. He never notices what I'm wearing.
'Tell me when you're wearing something special and I'll comment on it,' he says.
'But haven't you got eyes? Can't you see?'
Back then she had bought her clothes in charity shops. It's easy when you're young.
She phones her mother.
'This weather!' her mother says. 'I'm praying it'll clear by Saturday. Diana says it's going to get worse.'
Saturday is the opening night of the Glyndebourne season. They're all going, Laura and Henry, her sister Diana and Roddy, courtesy of their loving parents.
'Don't listen to Diana, Mummy. You know she hates it when people are happy.'
This is true. Diana the ambitious one, Laura the pretty one. Some quirk in the sibling dynamic dictated from an early age that Diana takes life hard, and requires the world to reflect this. But she has her good moments, she can be loyal and generous. Never so loving as when Laura is miserable.
'We can picnic on the terrace, I suppose. What will you wear?'
'I don't know,' says Laura. 'I haven't thought.'
'Diana's bought something from a shop in St Christopher's Place. I forget where, but she sounds terrifically pleased with it.'
'How's Daddy's back?'
'Pretty hellish. I have to put his socks on for him in the morning. Doctors can't cure backs, you know. They just shrug their shoulders.'
What will I wear? Laura wonders as she puts down the phone. She reviews her wardrobe in her mind's eye. Her current favourite, a green Ghost dress, is too light for a chilly May evening. As for her beloved vintage Alaia, the truth is she no longer has the figure for it. Not bad for forty-two and two children, but there was a time when she could fit into anything.
Maybe I should zip up to London tomorrow.
This idea, suddenly planted, blossoms fiercely. There's barely time between school runs but it can be done. Glyndebourne opening night is a grand affair, and it's not often she gets a chance to dress up these days. There was a time when she turned heads.
She takes up the waiting letter and looks again at the handwriting that forms her name. A rapid careless scrawl in fine black fountain pen, effortlessly stylish. Every stroke premeditated, therefore the carelessness an illusion, an achieved effect. But she hadn't known that back then.
She opens the envelope. Headed letter paper, an unfamiliar address in London. No salutation. No Dear Laura, Dearest Laura, Darling Laura, nothing. As always.
Well, seems like I'm back in the old country for a few weeks. Drunk on England in spring. Walked yesterday in a bluebell wood so perfect it tempts my heathen soul to seek a Creator. How are you? Who are you? Shall we meet and compare notes on the vagaries of life's journey?
No signature, not even an initial. She smiles, shakes her head, both touched and irritated that he has changed so little. What right does he have to assume she remembers? And yet of course she remembers.
She opens the bottom left-hand drawer of her desk, the place where she keeps the family memorabilia. Birthday cards from the children, paintings they did in class long ago, letters from Henry. She fumbles all the way to the bottom, and there finds a sealed envelope she should have thrown away years ago, but has not. She takes it out and places it on the desk before her.
The envelope is addressed: 'For N.C., one day.'
She remembers writing it, but not the words she wrote. Ridiculous to have kept it for so long.
The flap of the envelope yields easily without tearing the paper. Inside is a thin red ribbon, a strip of four photo-booth pictures, a short note in Nick's handwriting, and her letter.
She gazes at the pictures. In the top one he's smiling at the camera, at her. In the bottom one he has his eyes closed.
She starts to read the letter. As she reads, tears come to her eyes.
Dear Nick. I'm writing this not long after you asked me to leave you. I'll give it to you when you ask me to come back.
The phone rings. Hurriedly, as if caught in a shameful act, she puts the envelope and its contents back in the desk drawer.
'So is it going to rain or isn't it?' Diana's phone conversations always begin in the middle. 'God, don't you hate England?'CHAPTER 2
She saw him coming down the carriage, swaying with the movement of the train, his eyes scanning left and right for an empty seat. She slid her canvas tote-bag over the table towards her, so creating a space that the stranger would feel permitted to occupy: an unthinking act of invitation which he accepted. His long body folded into the seat facing her. In the moment of glancing eye contact he smiled, making fine wrinkles round his eyes. He took out a book and opened it where a postcard marked his place. The book was a dark-bound library edition, and though she tried, she couldn't discover its title. The postcard, which lay on the table before her, was a painting of classical figures round a tomb. So he was a student like her.
She gazed out of the train window at the passing scene. The train entered a cutting. His reflection formed before her eyes, and she was free to look without restraint. He was handsome, his strong features framed and softened by a tangle of chestnut curls. He wore a denim jacket over a check long-sleeved shirt, the cuffs unbuttoned. Round his neck on a leather thong was a single mottled ceramic bead. He read intently, moving only to turn the page. She studied his hand in reflection, admiring the long fine fingers, noting the bitten nails.
He did not look at her. He seemed to be unaware of her. His indifference on this, their first encounter, won her respect.
She asked Katie O'Keefe later, 'Do you think that a man who wears a bead round his neck is gay?'
Katie screwed up her face to consider.
'Quite a big one. Kind of tortoiseshell.'
'Bent as a poker,' said Hal Ashburnham.
'Pokers aren't bent.'
'It's all about where you put it, isn't it? In here it's straight. In here, it's bent.'
The following evening she went to a party given by Richard Clements in his college rooms. She had an essay to finish and worked long into the evening, so by the time she arrived the party was noisy and crowded. Felix Marks cornered her almost at once. He spoke to her intently but inaudibly while her eyes searched the room.
Richard had told Laura that Felix was in love with her, though how this could be, or even what it meant, Laura didn't know. Love that is offered but not returned is just words, surely, a nothingness, a whistle in the dark.
Why have I never been in love?
Nineteen years old and no shortage of offers. She caught sight of herself reflected in the uncurtained window panes, a shine of dark-blonde hair, a pale face, serious eyes. Why do I let Felix whisper secrets to me? Because I want to be liked. Liked but not loved. Admire me but don't touch me. No, not that. Touch me, love me, but only you, whoever you are, and only when I'm ready, whenever that may be.
Richard found her and rescued her.
'Someone you have to meet,' he said.
He had his back to her but she recognized him at once. He turned at Richard's touch and looked at Laura and smiled.
'We've met already.'
'You've met already?' Richard was hurt. 'No one told me.'
'Not exactly met,' said Laura.
So he had noticed her after all. He was smoking a Gitane, its acrid smell reaching her like a low growl. There was music playing behind the clatter of voices. Jackson Browne.
Honey you really tempt me You know the way you look so kind I'd love to stick around but I'm running behind ...
'Laura Kinross. This is Nick Crocker.'
Plumpton racecourse in the rain. White rails lonely without a crowd, just fields really. Woman reading Vogue has great legs. Catch Barry before the meeting, ask about changing the screen credit, written and directed by Henry Broad, it's called intellectual property, Barry. Not that I'm not grateful. Barry knows I took the job after eight months developing projects as they say, no one in television ever being out of work, merely unpaid. Though Jesus knows it's not as if even now they pay what they call in the City shed loads. You take a garden shed and fill it with twenties all the way up to the bituminous-felt-clad roof and you give it to a man like a frog as his reward for gambling with other people's money. The frog man buys a pretty young wife and a house in the country with a paddock for his pretty young daughter's pony, he takes the train to London every morning, he sits at his work station and fondles money, tosses money, jerks money until it spasms more money, on through the day, no lunch, into the evening hours. Daughter untucked, wife unfucked, shed reloaded.
Ah, sweet envy, balm of my soul. No, this isn't about money, Barry. This costs you nothing. This is about self-respect.
Woman reading Vogue has truly terrific legs. Can't see her face. Skirt with buttons up the front, one button missing, tights with a run on one side, not one of those glossy women you'd be afraid to touch. Rest my idle gaze on her crotch. Will she sense it? Play the mind game. Push up her skirt, reveal the let's say white triangle of her panties, white so much sexier than black or red. Translucent white fabric, dark crinkle of pubic hair. Look away. Down comes Vogue. Face worn and warm, rumpled, attractive. Tired eyes don't see me. Only a game. The secret life of commuters. They say men think of sex every seven seconds. Six seconds of rest, then.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Secret Intensity Of Everyday Life"
Copyright © 2008 William Nicholson.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another book I read at one go, virtually. On the train to London and on the way back the next day.
This book is not only about a woman whose ex-lover has reappeared in her life, as the front cover suggests. The book does start off with a chapter about the ex-lover getting in touch with Laura Broad, but this is actually a book about a Sussex village and its inhabitants, and takes place over the course of six days in 2000. I felt it got off to a slow start, and I think that was because it was flitting around a bit and I didn't feel able to get my teeth into anybody's story. However, I quickly realised that this is a brilliantly written novel of life's dramas and mundanities, and I think the author did a very good job of interweaving many stories together. This is a book which creeps up on the reader and draws them in, and it certainly made me want to keep reading to the end to find out what happens to the characters. I see that William Nicholson has a sequel coming out next month, and I'm really eager to read it. I would definitely recommend it to anybody who likes a 'slice of life' story and a book where you care about the characters.