An Extract from Sisters in Law
‘I’ve always wondered if Sasha saw a happy family,’ said Kate, ‘and couldn’t resist tearing it apart, or whether the cracks had been there all along, just waiting for someone destructive – or damaged– to work her fingernails into them. But when I first saw the three of you – the three Fox men – and her, I had this image of her choosing one of you to run off with. But I told myself it could never happen . . .’
‘And then it did,’ interrupted Olivia.
Two Years Earlier
Kate Fox and Jonny Rafferty were late getting Sunday lunch ready. This often happened because they tried to crowd too much into their days.
‘We should have done this weeks ago,’ said Jonny, hefting his tool box up from the tiny cellar tucked under their narrow Victorian terraced house. ‘People will be here in a minute.’
‘We’ve got about an hour. We can get these hung in that time.’ Kate unwrapped a series of family photographs, each in an identical matt black frame with a huge cream mount, transforming the image from a happy memory into a work of art. They had just finished
having a modern kitchen extension built, and instead of the jumbled, friendly collage of colourful snapshots she’d crammed into frames or pinned up on the noticeboard in the old kitchen, she’d decided – no, they’d decided, because she and Jonny discussed everything – that it would be nice to choose one or two really beautiful photographs of each family member and frame them dramatically on the new white walls.
But they were all due round for lunch at any moment and the photographs lay on the floor, in their packaging, the ‘washed and ready to eat’ salad was in bags in the fridge and the rice was still in its packet, although at least there was a hunk of meat, marinated in Turkish spices, roasting in the oven.
‘We couldn’t do it any earlier, we had that awards ceremony, three parties, two parents’ evenings at school, the Lovelace Conservation Committee meeting and we both had deadlines at work.’ Kate handed Jonny the first photograph, a deliciously retro black-and-white image of her mother and father, Ella and Michael Fox, as bride and groom circa 1966. Under her pillbox hat and above his kipper tie their faces looked unrecognisably young and
innocent. ‘Let’s start with this one in the middle, shall we?’
The earliest photos were the easiest – a studio shot of Kate and her brothers Simon and Jack, aged five, seven and three, respectively, with gap-toothed smiles, and another on Jonny’s side, of him and his sister squinting into the sun with buckets and spades. Kate had tried to exclude anything that resembled a traditional family photo, rejecting the garish colours and muddled composition of everyone crammed on to a sofa in their Sunday best, with unrealistically neat hair and bright smiles. She wanted simple backgrounds and casual clothes, pictures that really gave an impression of the person behind the image, like the head-and-shoulders portrait of her mother, Ella, her chin jutting out in determination, her sharp eyes seeing everything. Well, almost everything.
She’d found a good one of her father, in his late forties, with a wry smile on his face, urging them on to be the best they could be, encouraging them all every inch of the way, taking their childish worries seriously and sorting out their scraps and bickering.
Until a drunk driver on the A3 wiped him out of their lives overnight when Kate was fifteen. He had been on his way home after working late, as personnel director of an industrial components
After that, the sunny childhood had become muddled and grey.
They moved to a smaller house, with a back yard instead of lawns and three bedrooms instead of five, in a less ‘nice’ area. While Si won a scholarship to finish his A levels at the private school all three had attended, Kate and Jack had to leave, and found themselves in the school none of their friends wanted to go to. For Kate it was easier – she was starting her A levels and, higher up the school, the rebellious element had left – but, Jack, aged thirteen, had to prove that he wasn’t a ‘toff ’ and he learned to prove it with his fists. Ella, who had always been at home, checking their homework and cooking meals, had to go out to work, and the heart went out of the household. Kate cooked the boys fish fingers or sausages and beans. Simon became ‘the man of the family’ at seventeen. Jack, the youngest, became loud and scrappy in the school playground and was suspended three times. Kate and Si persuaded him to clean up his act, and managed to cover up a certain amount of his bad behaviour. The three of them made it work. That’s what their father would have wanted. To keep the worries away from their mother. They tested each other at exam time, supported each other over boyfriends and girlfriends, and tried not to think about their father.
Si got into Oxford and became embarrassed about coming from the suburbs, then married Olivia, his long-term university girlfriend, a few years later. Kate, whose exam results were less stellar, went to London after leaving school, to become a radio journalist. Jack grew up and dropped the bad boy act, joining the
army. Eventually Ella bought a tiny cottage in Thorpe Wenham, a picture-perfect Oxfordshire village. She had done her job. The family was launched. And so well. Everyone said so.
Kate took another photo out of its bubble wrap. It was a beautiful one of Si and Olivia at their wedding reception at St James’s Palace – she was, according to Ella, who was impressed by these things, ‘terribly well connected’. Si was the taller of the two Fox brothers, and his hair was darker than Kate and Jack’s mousey blond. Kate teased Si that he should put ‘dark mouse’ under ‘hair colour’; Jack joked that he should just write ‘rat’. Olivia was tall too, and gangling, a string bean in a frothing meringue of a dress, with a generous mouth and long chestnut hair.
Then the photo of Jack and Heather: Jack was stockier than Si and tawny in colouring. Heather was strawberry blonde and tiny, like a very pretty pixie. She had a hesitant gaze, dimples and wrists so slender that they looked as if they might snap. She married in
a slim silk sheath with a twist of flowers in her hair – the photo showed her peering nervously up at Jack’s fellow officers as they crossed swords above the couple in a guard of honour as she and Jack left the church.
Kate and Jonny had chosen three photographs of their sons, Luke and Callum, from a serious-faced Callum with baby Luke in his arms to a pair of cheeky boys grinning at the camera to the one taken last year of them sitting back-to-back in white T-shirts and frayed jeans, with Callum’s spider-long legs and arms twice the length of his brother’s more rounded limbs. Luke and Callum had Jonny’s blond wavy hair and penetrating blue eyes, combined with the Fox jaw. Luke was ten. Kate still ferried him to and from school, and knew all his friends, while Callum, empowered by going to secondary school, ambled off on his own, taking a bus, and the names he referred to at the end of the day were unfamiliar to her. He often begged Kate to walk on the other side of the road from him if they were anywhere near school, because she was so ‘embarrassing’.
‘Should we put the boys’ pictures in some kind of age order?’ she asked, ‘or just dot them around wherever?’ Jonny, who as a television director had a strong visual sense, spent a few minutes experimenting, then tacked them up in exactly the right place. Kate kissed him.
‘And now,’ he shot a teasing look, ‘we’ve actually got some representation of my family to go up. I didn’t think you were going to allow them on the wall.’
‘Of course I am. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s you who barely keeps in touch with your sister. It’s none of my business if you don’t.’ But it had been with secret reluctance that she’d rummaged through his photographs, although she’d found a wonderfully nostalgic looking photograph of Jonny’s parents, both now dead, looking rather like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and another she quite liked of Jonny’s sister, Virginia, as one of the ‘girls in pearls’ in the front of Country Life when she got engaged to Angus. Such photos did look great in huge frames, even if she wasn’t terribly fond of the people in them.
But the most difficult task had been to find the right photographs of herself and Jonny. There was an arty shot of the whole family tangled round a ladder, all with bare feet (no conventional line-ups for the Fox-Rafferty household), and a heavenly close-up of Jonny outdoors, with his lazy, beach-bum smile and creased blue eyes.
When she’d first met him – she’d interviewed him as the hot new director of a cult documentary series – the first thing she’d noticed was a pair of tanned and muscular legs emerging from shorts. In November. And she’d thought that any man who smiled like that instead of speaking and had hair down to his shoulders might well be both stupid and vain. He’s got a lot of women after him, she thought – accurately, as it turned out. He needn’t think I’m going to be one of them.
But she soon discovered that he used his smile to give himself time to think, and that, far from being vain, his hair was long because he could only be bothered to have it cut once a year, when he would have it virtually shaved off. And those shorts had been the first thing that came to hand when he’d opened the wardrobe that morning.
He was certainly a man who needed looking after. Kate had risen to the challenge, but had made it clear that she wasn’t going to pander to his every whim like all the Jennys, Janes, Jamilas and Janelles that seemed to clog up his answering machine. The relationship would be on her terms, and if he didn’t like it, he knew where the door was. If he wanted someone adoring, or even a histrionic diva, he could go and find one.
So far, he hadn’t. She thought of the first time she’d ‘accidentally’ left her make-up at his flat. He hadn’t said anything, so she left a pair of jeans, then some shoes, kicked under the bed so they could seem to be there by mistake. Over the next few weeks, her possessions crept into his place under their own volition, like guerrilla fighters sneaking over the border, and draped themselves over bits of furniture, challenging the now invisible Jenny, Jane, Jamila and Janelle, until he suggested that she have a drawer and a corner of the wardrobe.
She’d seen that drawer as an interesting sign that they might have some sort of a future together, and that, for the time being, the Js were in retreat. So she brought out the big guns, inflicting damage invisible to the naked male: two little dark smudges on the corner of a towel to signify ‘mascara-wearer was here’ or flowers in a vase. Men never put flowers into vases. Women knew that.
There was no answering fire: no single earrings on the floor near the bed or discarded female razors in the bathroom wastepaper basket.
Her first pregnancy had been an accident – she had been quite frightened by its suddenness, barely a year after they’d first met – but Jonny seemed unfazed, and they’d decided to buy a place together. 19 Lovelace Road.
So here they were. But she couldn’t quite identify a photograph that said ‘this is us’. They’d never married – they’d talked about it, but somehow there’d never been the time or the money. Throughout her twenties, Kate had come away from weddings storing away little details that she liked or making mental notes as to what had been wrong. Your wedding day was the most important day of your life, and she didn’t want to do it until she was ready to do it perfectly. And not, of course, until she was down to a size ten. And Jonny agreed. Or rather, he didn’t really seem to care.
Men didn’t. Thinking about this, Kate suppressed a very faint worm of unease. Very few people got married these days. There was no point. It was absurd to abide by old-fashioned conventions. It just meant there were no photographs. And none of the pictures of him looking cool and her in a big, unfortunate hat at various friends’ weddings would do. There were several photos of them on holidays, but Kate thought she looked like a fat, white slug next to the tanned, relaxed Jonny. In the end, she’d discarded the beach-bum shot because there was no equivalent one of her, and decided to frame a stylish photograph of him taken for a media magazine after he’d won an award for one of his series, and one of herself in the kitchen at 19 Lovelace Road taken when she’d been interviewed by a woman’s magazine about one of her programmes. Both had the right kind of relaxed, cool seriousness and were well composed.
It was only when they were up that she realised that she and Jonny were not only in separate photos but they seemed to have defined themselves purely in terms of their work. She shot a look at him. Had he noticed?
‘That looks great,’ he said, looking at his watch. ‘So who’s coming?’ He put away the tool box and moved over to the wine rack, recently installed in the sleek new kitchen. ‘Do you think we’ll need more red wine or mainly white?’
Kate whisked a bag of carrots out of the fridge and began to grate furiously, a new Middle-Eastern cookbook propped up in front of her. ‘Olivia and Si. Olivia drinks white, but don’t forget that she hates Chardonnay, and Si likes really good reds. Don’t give him any rubbish, you know what he’s like, he’ll get pompous.
Heather barely drinks . . .’ Kate put down the grater. ‘I get the impression that her parents might have been teetotallers or something, maybe a big ban on wicked alcohol in the house when she was growing up, what do you think?’
Jonny shrugged. ‘She’s never mentioned any of her family to me.’
‘Don’t you think that’s odd?’
‘I think we need to get on with sorting out lunch.’
‘Oh, OK.’ But Kate frowned slightly as she picked up another carrot. ‘Jack, of course, knocks back anything, and the children will stick to orange juice. Mumma likes sherry. Oh, and I’ve invited Sasha Morton. That woman I met at the drinks on Thursday. She’s the daughter of the painter Roderick Morton, so she could be quite interesting. She’s going through some hideous divorce and is on her own this weekend, so I felt sorry for her.’ Kate flicked hair out of her eye. Her arm ached and there were still seven carrots to go. ‘And she’s trying to get into “the media”.’ She put down the carrot and wiggled her fingers to indicate quote marks. ‘She said she’d love some advice. She seems really nice.’
‘Just don’t put me next to her.’ Jonny’s voice came from the fridge, where he was having difficulty finding space for a few extra bottles of white wine. ‘The weekends are my time off, and I don’t want to have to give the ten reasons why it is almost impossible to get into TV.’
‘Me too. But to be fair,’ said Kate, who was always trying to be a better person, and rather guiltily feeling that she’d failed, ‘I thought she was rather interesting. And her ex-husband sounds awful.’
Jonny rolled his eyes. ‘You never stop, Kate, do you?’
‘What do you mean? I’m just trying to be nice. If you walked out, you wouldn’t want people to leave me on my own all weekend.’
‘If I walk out, it’ll be because you invite people round the whole time.’ He began opening the red wine, shaking his head in mock despair.
The doorbell rang twenty minutes later. Ella was always the first to arrive.
‘The traffic was terrible.’ She handed over the pudding that she’d made as her contribution to lunch, plus a bunch of daffodils from the garden. ‘Really awful. I think I’m going to have to stop driving. I’m getting far too old. I’m seventy this year, you know.’ She delivered these lines in crisp tones.
‘Oh, no. Seventy is nothing nowadays. Just the right age for trekking in the Himalayas or taking up parachuting.’ Kate was disconcerted by Ella’s admission of frailty. She wanted Ella to go on exactly as she was, the mainstay of the Thorpe Wenham allotments, a demon bridge player and, twice a week, a volunteer at the charity shop.
Luke came racing up to kiss his grandmother, and her face softened at the sight of him.
‘Come and see the new extension.’ He took her hand and pulled her towards the back of the house.
Ella nodded, conveying approval. ‘I love the light. And it’s so big. But wasn’t it very expensive?’
‘Oh, not really.’ Kate knew the question of how much they’d spent would be a hot topic amongst the family for weeks to come, with lines being drawn and sides being taken. She would be labelled extravagant. Quite unfairly. This was an investment. She avoided the question. Ella settled herself on one of the huge dark sofas, and accepted a sherry from Jonny. ‘Tell me who’s coming.’
‘Everyone. Si and Olivia, and Jack and Heather with the girls, and someone I met last week called Sasha Morton. She’s the daughter of the painter Roderick Morton. She’s getting divorced, and doesn’t have her children this weekend, so she’s a bit lonely.’
Ella frowned. ‘I thought we would just be family. It’s not a good idea to invite divorced women round, you know.’ She indicated the stairs. Jonny had disappeared with Luke, to check something on the computer. ‘I mean suppose he fancies her? You’re not married, you know.’
Why were mothers so infuriating? ‘Mumma, that has absolutely nothing to do with anything, and the reason why Jonny stays with me isn’t about a meaningless piece of paper, but because he knows that we’re both free agents.’ She picked up the carrot she was about to grate, held it as if it were a microphone, and tried to sing. ‘He knows my door is always open and the sleeping bag . . .’ She couldn’t quite catch the tune. Or the words, for that matter. Ella looked perplexed.
‘What are you doing?’ Jonny came back into the room.
‘Karaoke with the carrot.’ Kate began grating again. ‘Trying to remember that song that says how your sleeping bag stays rolled up behind the sofa because the door is always open. “Ever Gentle On My Mind”, that’s it. That’s what I am, Mumma.’
‘Kate, you’re many things when you’re on my mind,’ said Jonny, ‘but ever gentle is not one of them.’
‘You never could sing.’ Ella was thoroughly disapproving. ‘Si and Jack both have lovely voices, but you always sounded like a frog trying to get through a grating.’
Kate giggled. ‘Mumma thinks this new friend of mine might be after you, Jonny, because she’s a divorcee, and therefore, by definition, must be looking for a man. I was saying “so what?”’
Ella’s cheeks went pink. She firmly believed in keeping secrets from men. And any kind of female machination. Then she raised her chin towards Jonny. ‘Well, she might be after Jack, he’s got no sense, or Si, because anyone who works that hard is bound to have an affair at some point.’
‘It sounds like fun.’ Jonny laughed, leaning against the chunky black granite ‘island’ they’d installed in the middle of the room. ‘But as Si and Jack are so busy, shouldn’t we worry more about Olivia and Heather – they’re obviously on their own so much?’
‘Don’t try to tie me in knots, you know what I mean.’
‘I look forward to being fought over,’ said Jonny. ‘Bags I, in fact. Jack doesn’t deserve it, and Si only thinks about money anyway.’
‘Dream on,’ said Kate, squeezing lemon over the carrots and adding caraway seeds. ‘She can have you if she wants you. Which she won’t unless you shave before they all arrive, you look as if you’ve slept on a park bench.’
Jonny saluted and went upstairs.
‘Anyway,’ said Kate, feeling guilty about teasing her mother, ‘I don’t believe that someone can just walk in and destroy a good relationship. There’d have to be something wrong to start with, so she won’t get far with any of us. I mean, both Si and Olivia and Heather and Jack are really strong together. Don’t you think? In their different ways?’
Ella regarded her steadily over the rim of the glass with a knowing expression. She was not going to be persuaded. ‘Where’s Callum?’ she said, changing the subject. ‘And isn’t that the doorbell?’
‘I hope we’re not late,’ said Heather, edging in the door nervously, kissing Kate, hugging Luke, and proffering a large flat box, slightly dented. ‘Sorry, Molly sat on the apple tart. It’s a bit squashed. Sorry. Sorry.’
Heather’s constant churning anxiety made Kate want to shake her. She was beautiful, bright, slim and nice – why did she have to apologise for herself the whole time? ‘Don’t worry, Heather, it’s fine. Callum . . .’ she called upstairs, ‘everyone’s here.’ An indistinct snarl from the top floor indicated that Callum had heard.
‘Molly sat on the tart!’ shrieked ten-year-old Daisy, as she was towed in the door by Travis, their chocolate labrador. 19 Lovelace Road’s long, narrow hall had little space for enthusiastic labradors. He barrelled past Kate, almost knocking her down, dragging Daisy behind him as a motorboat tows its water-skier. ‘The tart was on the seat and she just didn’t look. She sat right down on top of it!’ Almost everything Daisy said had exclamation marks.
‘It wasn’t my fault.’ Twelve-year-old Molly followed, the image of her pale, slender, strawberry-blonde mother. ‘It’s not very sensible to put a tart on a seat, is it?’
‘Well, where else would you put it? Not on the floor,’ said Jack, coming in last with his arms full of bottles of wine and a jar of Heather’s home-made marmalade, which he pressed on Kate. ‘Can you pump up the apples somehow?’
Kate kissed him. ‘I’m sure I can do something with it. How lovely. I adore Heather’s marmalade.’ She expected this sort of thing from Jack. He was the family hero – he was in military intelligence, which he self-deprecatingly referred to as ‘a contradiction in terms’, completely at home with obscure snippets of information from tribal elders in terrorist-infiltrated villages, but vague about domestic matters. How he had managed to persuade the immensely competent Heather to agree to marry him was a mystery to them all, but it proved that he did have some sense, as Heather was, everyone agreed, the perfect wife. They had lived in a series of army quarters, which varied from depressing 1960s boxes on windy estates to the current rather pleasant – even lavish – 1930s colonel’s quarters in Halstead Hill, just inside the M25 in Surrey. Their various houses were usually too small – or too far away – for full family gatherings, and Kate’s other sister-in-law, Simon’s wife Olivia, hated cooking and was too busy ‘sorting out the world’ as the family legend had it. So family celebrations were usually directed by Kate and centred round 19 Lovelace Road.
‘Oh, wow!’ Heather stopped. ‘This is amazing, Kate. What a transformation.’
‘How much do you think it cost, Heather?’ asked Ella. ‘Kate never tells me anything.’
Heather paled. She always seemed terrified of Ella. ‘Oh, I . . .’
The new extension stretched out before them, all thirty feet of it, with its width spanning the entire twenty feet of 19 Lovelace Road’s plot. There were lantern-windows in the flat roof and a full wall of glass ahead of them, flooding the room with light, and, along one side, a steel double fridge, range and line of units. Daisy and Molly rushed round the chunky island unit in the middle, shrieking. Their voices bounced off the hard surfaces.
‘It’s amazing,’ repeated Heather. ‘And, oh, look the photographs. Aren’t they lovely? You’re so clever.’
‘Are you sure we’re not too grubby and stained to be allowed in?’ asked Jack. ‘Now I can see all sorts of things I would never have noticed before. Like your roots.’ He grinned at his sister with brotherly venom.
Kate blushed. ‘I haven’t had time to have my roots done,’ she said. ‘Or the money. We went over budget.’
‘So it was very expensive,’ confirmed Ella, with triumph in her voice. ‘I thought so. Now where is Callum?’
‘Have a drink. We’ve got some elderflower cordial and there’s masses of wine.’
Jonny kissed Heather and shook hands with Jack. ‘What can I get you?’
‘Mm. This is a smart bottle of red, Jonny,’ said Jack. ‘Have you won the Lottery?’
‘Jonny, this is lovely,’ said Heather, accepting her glass of elderflower cordial, and looking round again. ‘You must have added so much space to the house.’
‘Not to mention the space you must have added to your bank account,’ added Jack.
‘I would like to see my other grandson,’ declared Ella. ‘I’ve been here for half an hour and there’s been no trace of Callum.’
‘Callum!’ Kate screamed up the stairs. ‘Granny’s here. And everyone else.’
Callum slouched down around ten minutes later.
‘You look terrible, darling,’ said Ella. ‘Are you getting a cold?’
‘No, Gran, I’m fine.’ He kissed her, glared at Kate, then poured the entire contents of a carton of orange juice down his throat.
‘Goodness,’ said Ella. ‘You must be about to start growing. It’s so important for men to be tall. Now where have you been?’
‘And what have you been doing?’
Ella smiled indulgently. ‘Jack was exactly the same at his age,’ she said to Heather. ‘Boys will be boys.’
Sisters in Law is available from all good bookshops from September 3rd 2009.