Читать онлайн «An Almost Perfect Moon»
It was true, it was. Perhaps someone was trying to tell him something. He hadn’t thought about that part of the world for ages, then suddenly two pointers in one afternoon. But the North-East did hold some unique possibilities. He knew Newcastle from his unversity days nearby at Durham, and he liked it too, from what he remembered. A big urban centre – lots of shops, cinemas and nice places to eat, so they wouldn’t feel too cut off. And surely they had PR companies up there? There was certainly television. Then there was Northumbria itself: the long beaches with the castles of Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, romantic cliff-top outposts that he remembered captivated him so much when he’d holidayed there as a child. There was Hadrian’s Wall and dry-stone walls and sheep and lots and lots of space. How could he possibly get stuck in a traffic jam up there? Most importantly, it was cheap. Or at least, cheap compared to Wiltshire. He’d love to go back there, to be near his family and his oldest friend, Geordie. It would be wonderful to live the rest of his days in the countryside where he’d grown up and been so happy. But what could he do there? Salisbury was hardly a heaving urban epicentre. It was also pricey – he always looked at the property prices in the Salisbury Journal and it never failed to dishearten him. No, if he wanted space, real space, a house with a bit of land, heading up north was the better option.
They went to bed quite early that night. Flin was already propped up rereading The Darling Buds of May when Tiffany joined him from the bathroom. Seeing her petite frame never ceased to thrill him. Nimbly tucking herself into bed, she put her arm over him and he felt her breasts, face and hair nestling on his chest, and one of her legs wrapping itself around his.
‘Thank you,’ he said to her.
But he didn’t answer, just kissed her instead. He and Tiffany just felt so right. He knew what Lucie had meant when she’d said that about her and Ben. He and Tiff’d been together four years now. He remembered when he realized she fancied him, and how surprised and delighted he’d been. She had been working for him, temping on her first job since arriving in London. On her last day, he’d overheard her talking about him to one of the other girls in the office. That night, after work, they’d gone to the pub, drunk too much and ended up in bed together. Since then, they’d hardly spent a day apart. No one understood him better, or made him laugh more. He knew he had a tendency to complicate his life; she was the most patient and uncomplicated person he knew. He was certain she would be prepared to move to the country; maybe it was her Australian blood, but she loved the outdoors. When they’d first started going out, it was she as much as he who’d suggested they go off camping at weekends and backpacking for their summer holidays.
Flin had always thought he’d move to the country some day, but it had been something one did when one was older, much older, so that he’d carried on living and working in London without really pausing to consider whether the rural idyll was actually a possibility. But now that time had arrived, sudden and unexpected – prompted by the mere reading of a newspaper! – and, really, there was nothing to stop them. He’d been subconsciously using his fears and the potential risks of the Big Move as a reason for staying put; but by playing safe he would become increasingly ensnared by the London tentacles: he’d never be able to leave his job because, before he knew it, he’d be past his sell-by date for anything else. No one else would want him. A sobering thought. Clearly, he had to take the plunge now, break free from the rope that was pulling him ever more firmly towards a lifetime in the city. Be bold, make the move while they were still young, and the pastoral dream could be theirs. He felt excited – and nervous – but determined to see it through. At least, he hoped he’d still feed the same way in a week’s time.
Apart from trips to the loo, Lucie remained true to her word, and didn’t lift another finger that day. Harry and Ben had done most of the clearing up earlier, but once everyone had left, Ben finished the job and then brought his wife more tea.
‘How are you feeling, my love?’ he asked her, running his hands through her short, thick hair.
‘Fine. I think. Tired. You can carry on doing that though.’
‘All right, but my arm’s beginning to ache.’
‘A bit longer. I’m definitely highly emotional and need lots of care and attention.’
Ben sat down again on the sofa, resuming his earlier position with Lucie’s legs straddled across him. He was very happy with their house. Three bedrooms, reasonable-sized kitchen at the back and a bit of a garden, half grass, half paved. Lucie, who had an eye for style, had decorated it beautifully – everyone said so, including Harry, whose opinion as an artist, they valued. They’d filled it with some old pieces of furniture stolen from her mother, but newer stuff too – such as the large Indian table and dresser, and the kind of sofa that encouraged deep-seated comfort. There was an abundance of cushions. It was the home of a young couple whose tastes had merged and who were doing well in the world.
He glanced at Lucie. He felt so proud of her. She was such a marvel, so wonderfully pretty and funny. And brave to be bearing the pregnancy with such calmness. He worried for her though. She always said she wasn’t pushing herself too hard, but he never quite believed her. It was all very well Harry accusing him of being a control freak, but he just wanted to make sure nothing went wrong. He wanted his baby, his family and the family to come, to be perfect. Sometimes he worried something terrible would happen and Lucie might be torn from him. It didn’t bear thinking about, he loved her so much. And the thought of having to put up with what his father had had to: four boys to rear almost entirely on his own – well, it would be awful, terrible unbearable. His father, just past retirement age but still forced to work, had looked so old last time Ben had paid him a visit. He’d always looked older than he was, the strain of looking after his sons and working long hours having taken its toll at an early stage, but even so … It wasn’t surprising his father had never remarried: he’d never had the time to meet anyone else.
Lucie too had lost a parent, although her father had been killed when she was just two. It had been a bond between them from the outset. But her father died flying a helicopter and Lucie was able to grow up proud of the handsome, heroic figure in the photo frame. Ben kept no picture of his mother. After she’d left them, she was simply never mentioned again. Sometimes it was as though she’d never existed at all.
Ben had never understood her desertion. What had they done to deserve such an unnatural act? Aunts and family friends were no substitute. Ben was brought up hearing his father yell at his older brothers Stephen, Matthew and Andrew as they found themselves in one piece of trouble after another. Gradually, they wore him down: by the time Andrew had dropped out of school, his father had long since given up trying to control them.
Ben was different. From an early age he’d recognized that the way to escape this oppressive family life was to keep his nose to the ground and work hard. His brothers helped with this. All of them were big; nobody messed with the Armstrong boys, so their little brother evaded the normal bullying meted out to swots. It was the one thing for which he would always owe them. By the time they’d all left school he was big enough to look after himself. At fifteen he was six feet tall and shaving every day, and no one touched him. He was left to study as hard as he liked, and it soon paid off. The first of his brothers to get any O-levels, he stunned the rest of the family by managing ten straight As. From then on university was just a formality. None the less, the day he’d won a place at Cambridge to read economics had been the best of his life. His ticket to freedom.
‘I wonder if the little thing will have any hair to start off with,’ said Lucie, suddenly opening her eyes.
‘I don’t know. At least we know what colour it’ll be.’
‘Worried I’ve been with the postman?’
Ben laughed. ‘If it’s not very dark indeed, you’ll be in big trouble.’ He rubbed her tummy gently. This was what he’d been looking forward to ever since they’d married: a son or daughter, so he’d have his own proper family. Just six weeks to go. He couldn’t wait. This was what he worked so hard for. He wasn’t going to make the same mistakes his father had. He would always be able to provide for his family. Lucie would be effectively retiring in a few weeks’ time – he now earned enough for her to extend her maternity leave indefinitely if she so wished, and still put money aside for the future. Their child would always have a parent at home. Ben glanced around the room. Life was pretty good. Upstairs he’d carefully decorated the nursery – yellow, because he felt it was good for boys and girls, and he’d also lined the room with a frieze and a mobile of wooden parrots. It was the only yellow Lucie had allowed in the house – elsewhere, she’d firmly banned it as being ‘too early nineties’.
‘But I like yellow,’ Ben told her, ‘it’s cheerful.’
‘But, darling, everyone has yellow. It’s so faux.’ Ben bowed to her better judgement. After all, she knew much more about style and current trends than he did – as she should, the amount of magazines she subscribed to.
Later, as they lay in bed, Ben said to her, ‘So what d’you think is Harry’s problem with Julia?’
Lucie put down her magazine, paused and then turned to him. ‘Harry’s a romantic, darling. But I also think he’s terrified of committing to anyone other than his mythical perfect person. And I’m not sure she exists.’
‘Perhaps he’s right, and Julia isn’t the one for him, but all I’m hearing is how wonderful she is. I don’t really understand his problem. And anyway, I thought all men liked big tits.’
‘Not at all. We don’t all adhere to men’s magazine ideology. And anyway, I love you and yours aren’t exactly huge, are they?’
‘Ben, I feel so flattered.’ She laughed. ‘But I do think Harry should give Julia a bit of a chance. He wants too much – no couple are going to be in perfect unison all the time, but he just won’t accept that.’
‘It’s his mum and dad,’ Ben told her. ‘Perhaps we’re at an advantage – we’ve got no standards to judge marriage by, but he’s got his brilliant parents, still happy together after thirty-five years. Harry says they even still sleep together, and his dad’s now seventy.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about Harry. We’re going to have more than enough to think about in a few weeks – I want you to concentrate your energies on us.’ She kissed him, and turned off the light.
CHAPTER TWO Harry faces a conundrum (#ulink_c390487d-f5a5-55de-b824-39d7849a3025)
The following morning Harry started up his Citroën and headed back towards Wandsworth. That was the good thing about this particular job: it was fairly close by and there were no parking restrictions on the road outside. To avoid using the Underground, with its cattle trucks of commuters and dilapidated escalators, Harry drove wherever possible.
He was enjoying this current project, a mural for a middle-aged couple’s kitchen. As usual he rang on the bell, got no answer, and then let himself in. Ian and Anna both left for work long before Harry even thought about opening his paints, and usually he finished long (he suspected) before they returned. Little notes would be left for him, words of encouragement, or a sudden change of heart, and would he mind terribly, if it was not too much of a pain, just adding another bit to the scene? On two occasions they had left him photos of buildings or sights they wanted incorporated. Harry didn’t mind. After all, he was there to paint what they wanted. That was the whole point of his murals: to realize his clients’ dreams. He would make suggestions, talk through ideas, and provide sketches, helping the client with crystallize whatever it was they had in mind. In this case, Ian and Anna had been quite certain they wanted a river scene running all the way round the kitchen between work surface and overhead cupboards, with images of their favourite parts of the countryside as background. Since he had been a comparatively young child, Harry had nursed a love and fascination with architecture. From the Suffolk churches and grand houses in and around the area where he grew up, to the medieval castles discovered with glee on family holidays, Harry’s taste had always been broad and varied. But as he grew older, read, learnt and saw more, so he developed a love of classicism. William Kent, Capability Brown, and Vanburgh were his heroes; Fragonard, Watteau and Boucher his artistic inspiration. Much of his work reflected this, his skills honed by a year at art college. After leaving Cambridge he’d shelved any ideas he might have had for becoming an architect, and instead, spurred on by his mother, he’d enrolled at St Martin’s. Although this had crippled him financially at the time, the gamble had paid off: ever since, he’d been able to maintain a career doing what he loved most. This latest work was a river scene, surrounded by luxuriant foliage and with hints of ancient temples and ruined columns in the distance, was no exception. He’d sketched the whole thing first on paper, then lightly onto the wall, so they could begin to see how the finished painting might look. Did they want people, birds and animals added along the way? Quite definitely, Anna had nodded emphatically. And what about a few more ruins? Or a folly on a hill in the distance, perhaps? Yes, they’d agreed, that might be fun.
He walked downstairs into the basement kitchen, with its large, square central space and thick terracotta tiles, put down his kit, and made a brief examination of his work. Over halfway through now. He should be finished in a couple of weeks. Luckily he had another big job to go to in a restaurant, plus a very small cupboard decoration in another private kitchen. He often found juggling the work difficult, so that sometimes he would take on more than he could really cope with, and on other occasions he might be unemployed for several weeks. Still, he’d never been out of work for long, and he certainly saw no point in worrying about it. So far, between bouts of feeling very cash rich and extremely short, he had survived very happily. The restaurant might take as long as a couple of months, though. Perhaps he could paint the cupboard while he was at the preliminary sketches stage of the other. Marcus, the restaurant owner, need never know. He would just have to work into the evening for a few days. But then there was the bathroom in Chelsea to do. He’d forgotten that. Damn. Perhaps he could do the prelims for Marcus, but postpone actually working on the walls for a week or two. He’d already postponed the Chelsea job once. He would just have to work a bit harder and longer over the next few weeks, Harry thought to himself as he boiled the chrome kettle in Anna and Ian’s kitchen.
His mobile rang. Below ground reception wasn’t great, but he could still hear Julia’s voice.
‘What are you doing now?’
‘Working incredibly hard. Making myself coffee.’
‘God, you have it easy.’ She laughed. ‘And do you have plans tonight? Why don’t you come over?’
‘I tell you what, why don’t you come over to me? Come straight from work and I’ll cook you supper.’
‘OK. That would be great. I feel I’ve hardly seen you.’
Harry paused. ‘Come whenever you can. Bye.’
He put the phone back down on the work-surface and blew onto the top of his coffee. How could she say she’d hardly seen him? They were together all Saturday. And he’d spent the previous Wednesday night at her flat too.
Ben was right though, he should be thanking his lucky stars. Perhaps he was being too choosy, too particular. From the outset, he had found Julia easy to talk to, down to earth and lacking pretension. And she was stunning, no question about it. Ben, though, had a vested interest in their relationship. It was he who had introduced them in the first place. Initially, Harry had felt his normal wariness of City workers. They were all (with the exception of Ben, of course) over-worked, materialistic machines, fit only for sneering at. Anyway, he was sure she wouldn’t think much of him. He didn’t even know how to read the FT share prices. But Ben had refused to listen to his attempts to wriggle out of the evening, and so eventually he’d given in and gone along. To his surprise, but as his friend had promised, Julia was broad-minded, self-deprecating and, despite being an extremely proficient investment banker (Ben had told him so), reluctant to discuss her own work for fear it would sound too dull. At the end of the evening, they’d exchanged numbers, met up a couple of evenings later, and gone to bed with each other two dates after that.
Harry slurped his coffee, in between peering intently at the mural and laying out his paints. It had certainly been an unusual first night. They’d met up in Soho, and she’d suggested they go to a Chinese restaurant she knew on Wardour Street.
‘It’s a really fun place. The waiters are always extremely rude, but the food’s great,’ she’d told him. Harry had been further surprised by her restaurant choice, having prepared himself for a ludicrously expensive meal in one of the top restaurants in town. Glazed brown ducks had hung by their necks in the windows, their heads pathetically limp. Harry shuddered and followed Juliain, hoping he wouldn’t be forced to look at them throughout dinner. He needn’t have worried. No sooner had they entered the slightly steamy atmosphere than a waiter bluntly told them to ‘get upstairs’.
‘See?’ said Julia. ‘I told you they were rude.’
‘Other people seem to like it too,’ said Harry as they were frog-marched through the crowded first floor to a table.
Harry found himself liking Julia more and more. As she talked, he attentively held her gaze, absorbing the details of her face. A slender jaw-line, straight nose and pale blue eyes; bobbed blonde hair and distractingly perfect white teeth beneath her narrow lips. Her skin, protected by a light brushing of foundation, looked pale and perfect, almost translucent. He imagined her playing a femmefatale in an old film; she would look even more beautiful in black and white.
After the Chinese, they managed to hail a taxi surprisingly quickly and, getting in, Julia said without conferring, ‘Cottesmore Gardens, please.’ Following her, Harry had no intention of avoiding what was inevitably going to ensue. He felt more attracted to her than to anyone else he’d met in the past few years. As the taxi trundled off, Julia turned to him seductively, her lips shining with a renewed gloss of lipstick, her long legs folded towards him.
‘Great Chinese,’ said Harry. ‘What do you think happens if you’re rude back? Do they poison you? Has anyone ever been poisoned?’
Julia laughed, then said, ‘I’ve had a lovely evening, thank you. It’s been such fun.’
‘Good, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed it,’ he grinned. She was looking at him intently. Clearly, the time had come. Leaning over, he kissed her, catching a deep infusion of her scent as he did so.
Once in her flat, Julia led him to the sofa, then disappeared only to reappear a few moments later with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. The place reeked of refined elegance: thick curtains hung luxuriously over the twin french windows facing out onto the street. Antique furniture – a beautiful dining table at one end of the room and two small console tables – stood beneath original artwork and a huge gilt mirror. Harry had never known anyone his age live in such style. ‘Cheers.’ She carefully chinked his glass and sat down next to him on the big sofa. He was conscious that the scene unfolding was perhaps just a bit contrived, the seductive champagne maybe a bit too planned. Quite flattering though. Carefully putting down his glass, he kissed her once more. Moments later, they lay full stretch, each grappling with the other’s belt and buttons. Harry marvelled at her wonderfully sleek and well-proportioned body. It felt good to be back in the fray at long last. As he kissed her all over, she murmured gently, her legs contentedly stretching out beneath him. Moving his arms behind her, she raised herself slightly, enabling him to neatly unclip her white lacy bra. With his hands and lips caressing her breasts, she began digging her fingers digging into his back. Suddenly, she pushed him up and, smiling mischievously, said, ‘Let’s go next door.’ Only her knickers lay between her and complete nakedness.
‘Now, where were we?’ She smiled once more, calmly pulling down his trousers and boxer shorts. ‘Ah, yes. You were about to fuck me, I think.’
Harry was slightly taken aback by her choice of words, especially as he’d never once heard her swear before, but was none the less happy enough to oblige. He hadn’t made love to anyone for over two years and, feeling incredibly aroused, was worried he might ruin everything by firing off in under thirty seconds. Desperately trying to think of anything non-sexual, he found the task slightly easier when Julia started repeating, ‘Fuck me, Harry, fuck me, Harry,’ quicker and quicker. What did she think he was doing? he thought, pummelling in and out of her.
‘Fuck HARDER,’ she yelled, and Harry, obeying her demands and pounding as hard as he could, tried desperately not to laugh. Still, he thought, if that was her kick, who was he to start objecting?
‘I hope you didn’t mind me shouting like that,’ Julia said afterwards. ‘I can’t help talking like that whenever I have sex.’
Harry shrugged and smiled. He couldn’t really think of an appropriate answer.
But it wasn’t the kinky sex talk that bothered Harry. It was something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He supposed he’d been worrying slightly about where he and Julia were heading, but this concern had taken a different turn over the past two days, ever since he’d seen Jenny at the theatre. Or at least, he was pretty sure it had been Jenny. During the interval, Julia and he had been chatting about the play, wedged in one corner of the bar with their pre-ordered drinks, when, over her shoulder, Harry had spotted two girls talking animatedly on the far side. Something about the back of the chestnut-haired one looked strangely familiar, and then she turned. She was quite a long way away, but he was certain it was Jenny. The way she smiled and brushed her hair from her face as she laughed was just so Jenny, it had to be her. When Julia asked him what the matter was, he said, Nothing, just someone he thought he recognized, but when he looked up again she’d gone. Vanished into the ether, as though she’d never been there at all.
He began sketching the outline of the Palladian bridge Anna had requested, between a lawn on one side and a row of poplars stretching away on the other. Perhaps Jenny hadn’t been there the other night. Perhaps he’d just seen a ghost of her. Every time he thought of her, a pang of regret came over him. Jenny had been lovely. Still, it had been a long time ago. He’d been eighteen then. They’d met, briefly, in Africa, where both had been spending six months before going on to university. But they would probably never have seen each other again had it not been for the fact that their parents lived quite close to each other in Suffolk. Sitting outside their tents watching the sun set over the Ngorongoro Crater, the world had never seemed bigger; discovering they lived barely fifteen miles apart back home struck them as a particularly strange piece of serendipity. On his return, he bravely called her up. Her father was in the RAF and they’d only been posted there a couple of years before, while Harry had lived in the same house in Polstead all his life. He was able to take her places she’d never been before – the best pubs, the prettiest spots. The relationship moved fast. Most of his other friends were still away, so he and Jenny spent almost all of the final couple of months before university together, totally wrapped up in their own little microcosm into which no one else was allowed or required to enter. They would meet up in the evenings and drive to a pub, or go to see a film. At weekends they took themselves off camping, walking for miles and miles and talking incessantly, so that in a short time Harry felt he knew more about Jenny than just about anyone he’d ever met. They even took a week off to go to Paris together, holding hands as they idled around Montmartre, gazing into each other’s eyes across café tables. Making love by night. Harry remembered feeling quite heady with the romance of it.
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