An Extract from Lovers and Liars
‘I’m sure I can help,’ said Sophie. ‘Just let me find a pen.’ Intent on answering the request at the other end of the line she forgot the rule written in invisible ink above the door of her father’s study. It was a no-go area. Forbidden. Knock first and enter at your peril. Sophie felt like an overawed child, instead of a mother of three on her thirtieth birthday.
She pushed the door open with her shoulder, hand outstretched for the pen she knew she’d find on her father’s desk.
There was a flash of storm grey wool and cream silk as fabric moved quickly, and two heads turned to face her.
‘Sophie, what are you doing here?’ The familiar mottled red crept up Bill Raven’s face. ‘I’ve told you to knock, you idiot girl. Can’t you get anything right?’ Sophie backed away, taking in his breathlessness, Anthea’s sleek expression, and the possessive way in which she placed a hand on Bill Raven’s sleeve.
‘That’s all right, Bill, isn’t it? After all, we had finished the Orchard Park accounts, hadn’t we?’ She directed a steely smile at Sophie. ‘Sophie, darling, that dress is divine. You always scrub up so well. Doesn’t she, Bill? She’s such a credit to you.’
And with that Anthea gathered up a pile of papers and walked out, sliding Sophie a mocking glance. The air was heavy as she passed, thick with some spicy, fruity perfume, with undercurrents of something chemical, almost like insecticide. Anthea left a trail of smoke in her wake.
She was Bill Raven’s accountant, the miracle worker who made the figures stack up at the end of the year, and Bill declared that, without her, he’d be a much poorer man. Indeed, he liked to add with a meaningful glance round the dinner table as he refilled his glass, they’d all be much poorer.
‘Well?’ he demanded of Sophie. He was still breathing heavily, she noticed. ‘What do you want?’
‘I wanted a pen. But it doesn’t matter.’ She tensed, wondering whether a stream of invective was about to rain down on her head.
‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Here’s one. No need to give it back. Do you want some paper as well?’
Sophie edged towards him to take the pen. ‘That would be good,’ she said, keeping an eye out for any sudden change of mood. ‘If that’s OK.’
‘Of course.’ He reached towards her, suddenly full of bonhomie and she could smell red wine on his breath. ‘Anything my little chicken wants on her birthday, she shall have.’
She sighed quietly with relief. He was in a good mood. He was the father she loved, the one whose arms she had run into every day as a small child, full of excitement about her day, and who had lifted her up into the air, listening to her gabbled accounts with a smile on his face. That father had loved her more than anything, and told her so often. But there was another father behind the mask, one whose anger she feared.
She took the paper and thanked him quietly, hoping to escape without any further exchange so she could process what she’d seen.
‘Oh, and Sophie,’ he said as she was almost out the door. ‘Anthea. She’s having a bit of a tricky time at the moment with some boyfriend. I’m a bit of a shoulder to cry on, know what I mean?’
Sophie, her stomach crawling at the thought, did know exactly what he meant. She nodded.
‘But don’t mention anything to your mother, eh? She … er … thinks I spend too much time thinking about work and
not enough time relaxing, and she rather blames Anthea for it. Ha ha.’
Sophie shrugged. ‘Fine. It’s no big deal.’
‘Your mum’s a bit low at the moment. We all need to look after her. Not worry her with anything.’
Sophie got out before Bill Raven could check his face in a mirror and see the smudge of coral lipstick beside his mouth. Closing the door behind her, she stood trembling, gathering herself to go back outside to the party, to safety, to where her mother had created the perfect birthday lunch for Sophie’s friends and family. Sophie’s husband and daughters were waiting for her to blow out the thirty candles on her cake.
‘Hello? Are you still there?’ she said to the mobile phone.
‘I’ll take that number and ring you back.’
Sophie liked to help. She was always the first person anyone rang when they wanted something done.
But how to help now? Should her mother hear about what Anthea and Bill were up to, or would it be better to protect her from being hurt?
Sophie believed that sometimes you had to tell little white lies, especially to her father. He was the most important person in the family. He worked so hard. He looked after them all. He was wiser and cleverer, more sensible and more practical than the rest of them. And often, of course, very tired. So you had to understand. Don’t upset Daddy. He’s had a hard day.
Sophie did understand. She was the only one in her family who did, because her younger sister Jess was so pointlessly rebellious and her mother – well, as Dad always said, she was just hopeless.
But the bedrock that had been her family had just developed a fault line, and Sophie wasn’t sure if this was the beginning of an earthquake or just a tiny crack in the earth that would vanish with the next fall of rain. Tell the truth or keep quiet? Protect her mother or support her father? Tell the truth or keep quiet? The options ticked back and forth, like a pendulum on a clock.