Even now, I can remember the first time I saw the house as clearly as if there were a video of it playing in my head.
Danny, Martha, and I had driven up from London together, the force of our collective will keeping my elderly Citroen from one of its increasingly frequent breakdowns. Cold night air had forced its way into the car around the loose windowpanes as I coaxed it along at speeds for which I could feel it reproaching me. I think we all had a feeling of adventure that evening, leaving the city as so many other people had been pouring into it, going against the tide.
Lucas’s directions had been easy to follow until the last part. We came off the motorway and soon were lost in the maze of minor roads that laced across southern Oxfordshire. A part of me was glad; I wanted to be ready before seeing him, but the miles had disappeared too quickly. The half hour we spent shuttling along the same dark lanes again and again had given me time to think. Finally I pulled up at the side of the road in the village we had been circling.
Danny leaned forward between the seats. “This place is like the end of the world.”
He was right. Even for a village, Stoneborough was nothing. The cottages, five or six of them huddled together, had an empty air; only one was showing any light, the blue wash of television seeping through the net curtain in an upstairs window. There was a pond, its edges sharp with frozen reeds, and a village green that was little more than a patch
of crisp white grass. No one had been across it since the dew fell.
“We can’t go round again,” I said. “We’re going to have to ask.”
“Can’t we call him?” said Martha.
“There’s no reception.”
Across the road was a pub called the White Swan, a squat stone building whose roof covered it like an oversized hat. The upper windows looked out slyly from underneath. On the ground floor the curtains were drawn, but a rim of yellow light was visible around them.
“It’s like the place doesn’t want to be found,” said Martha. She opened the passenger door and got out. Her usual long stride curtailed by the cocktail dress that clung tightly above her knees, she crossed the beam of the headlights and went in.
The radio was too loud now that the car had stopped so I turned it off. Danny leaned forward again. “It had better not be much further. It’s gone nine --- I’m dying for a drink.” His breath carried an unmistakable whisky tang.
“You’ve been taking nips from that hip flask all the way. I’ve seen you in the rearview.” I twisted round to look at him. The light from the pub’s carriage lamp cast the planes of his face into sharp relief. He looked elfish.
“It’s New Year’s Eve, Joanna.”
“Light me a cigarette, will you?” I asked. “Mine are in the boot.” He rummaged around among the newspapers on the backseat and found the packet. The match flared and died. “Thanks.”
“Your hands are shaking.”
“Are they?” I held one out flat and observed my fingers in the light from the dash. “Maybe it’s the thought of the big house. These things intimidate English teachers’ daughters, you know.” I shrugged and wound down the window to blow out the smoke. It was a policy I had developed with Danny: to reveal my weakness rather than give him the pleasure of discovering it himself.
“That’s one of the things I like about you. You’re always so honest about your humble beginnings.” He sat back and started flicking through old text messages on his mobile.
“It’ll be a thrill for me to be allowed above stairs.”
Martha came out of the pub, the heavy wooden door slamming shut behind her. “That way, about a mile on. I think we must have gone past it at least three times. There’s no sign on the road, apparently, just a track on the left that leads into a wood.” She pulled her red fake-fur jacket more tightly around her shoulders. “It is so cold out here.”
“I thought New Yorkers were used to hard winters,” said Danny.
We drove on out of the village. Living in London, I had forgotten how dark it got in the country. Hedges flashed past, illuminated only by our headlights and falling back into blackness behind us. We saw several pairs of small eyes in the undergrowth. When we’d gone about a mile I slowed down and started to look for the driveway. We were coming into a wood. Huge trees made a skeletal tunnel over the road, their bare branches tangled and swaying eerily. I pulled slowly along the verge for a couple of minutes.
“There,” said Martha. “That must be it.” I turned and we started up a rough track. I had expected to be able to see the house from the foot of the drive and squinted forward looking for lights, but there was nothing, just an intricate mesh of leafless branches opening up in front of us and pulling tight as a net behind us as soon as we passed. I thought of those fairy-tale woods where the trees sprout at supernatural speeds to ensnare those foolish enough to enter, but there were no signs of new growth here. Everything around us was dead or dormant, in the widow’s weeds of winter. We fell silent, as if the looming and falling away of the branches were weaving an enchantment around us. The car made heavy work of the road; we bumped and lurched over potholes for the best part of another mile before we veered left and found ourselves on a circular gravel drive.
I stopped the engine. There, in front of us, was the house. Stone-borough Manor, the Cotswold stone pile --- it really was the only description --- recently inherited by Lucas, my best friend.
Three stories high, it reared out of the night as if it were facing down the darkness. There were seven windows on the second and third floors, all blankly reflecting the tiny sliver of moon, but light spilled out of every one on the ground floor onto the two small lawns in front of the house. An avenue of yews lined the long path to the door, which was sheltered by a portico on two smooth round columns. I felt a pang of anxiety. Lucas had described it to me pretty well, but even so, the reality of it shocked me. How could it not change things between us?
We unloaded our bags from the boot and I locked the car, although who would break into it so far from civilization was anyone’s guess. I held Danny’s arm as we made our way up the path; the flagstones were slippery with frost and the heels I’d just changed into didn’t offer much in the way of grip. Martha rang the bell and we heard the echo of it reaching back into the house like a whisper. For a minute or two there was nothing and then the shape of a body appeared behind the stained glass panels in the door. Suddenly there he was, lit from behind and grinning. I saw immediately that he had lost weight.
“Lucas, it’s incredible,” I said, stepping forward. He put his arms around me and held me tightly. The collar of his dinner jacket was rough on my cheek.
“Hello,” he said, next to my ear.
He let me go and embraced Martha, then clapped Danny on the arm. “Mate. Come in. Did you find it all right?”
“Not without some effort,” said Danny. “Fuck, it’s fantastic. You kept this a secret. Why haven’t I been here before?”
“Well, it was Patrick’s. He did his entertaining in London. He was quite private here; it was a sort of family place.”
We left our bags by the door. We were standing in a central hall lit only by two large table lamps on a wooden chest. Their light pooled onto a black-and-white-checkered floor. Around the edges of the room were a number of marble busts on pedestals; one of them, I saw, was wearing our college tie. Above us, the upper floors of the house spiraled away like the inside of a snail shell, getting darker and darker as they receded upward. Our voices echoed coldly off the walls, rising away from us until they were swallowed by the body of the place. There was a strong scent of old-fashioned furniture polish.
“We’ll have the champagne now everyone’s here.” Lucas opened a door into an enormous drawing room. There was an immediate rise in the air temperature. The room was dominated by a white marble fireplace carved with an oak-leaf and acorn design, and in the grate a fire was burning, sending up flames a foot high. Brocade curtains hung from ceiling to floor at the three windows, their sun-faded rubies and greens complementing the ivy-pattern border of the artfully threadbare carpet. Here, too, the light came only from lamps dotted around on low tables and from a pair of thick church candles on the mantelpiece. In front of the fire there were two grand Chesterfield sofas of burnished burgundy leather that looked as if they had been there since the house was built. They were so much a part of the room I could imagine that they had grown there, sprung from seed in the carpet. Sitting on them were Rachel and a man I didn’t recognize. They stood up and Danny bounded over, caught Rachel in his arms and spun her around and around.
“Put me down,” she laughed. “Put me down, Danny. You’ll ruin my dress.”
He set her down on the carpet and stood back to scrutinize her. She was wearing a silver slip dress, crumpled like tin foil, deliberately torn at the shoulder and hem. The look was catfight on the catwalk. “Nice.” He nodded with approval and pouted at her.
She turned to the man and smiled at him, “Greg, this is Danny --- the inimitable --- and Joanna and Martha.”
“Ah, the new boyfriend,” said Danny.
“God, you’re rude.” She hit him lightly with the back of her hand. “Not quite so new, either. It’s been three months now.”
“Good to meet you.” Greg held out a large hand and I shook it. His grip was strong and dry. Although I’d almost managed to get rid of the shyness that near crippled me as a teenager, there was still the odd person who could revive it. He was going to be one of them, obviously. Rachel’s boyfriends were always good-looking; Greg had short brown hair and warm brown eyes fringed by long lashes. It was also plain that he was someone who had to encounter a razor more than once a day to stay clean-shaven; the shadow around his chin and a light tan gave him a vaguely dissolute aspect. That wasn’t what intimidated me, though. Although he looked to be only three or four years older than us, there was something indefinably adult about him. When I smiled at him, I found he was looking at me as if he were taking my measure. I looked down again quickly, in case I was unwittingly giving something away.
“Where’s Michael?” asked Martha. “Isn’t he supposed to be here?”
Lucas turned from the highly polished table where he was putting out champagne glasses. “He’s upstairs, getting a couple of hours’ sleep. I don’t think he got home last night.”
“Jesus, why do people do it to themselves?” Martha went over to look at the framed photographs on the mantelpiece. She picked one up and looked at it closely. “What can possibly be so urgent between Christmas and New Year that he can’t go home?”
“They’ve got some big deal on. Hostile takeover, from what I can gather. He looked knackered. But I suppose that’s why bankers earn those salaries.”
To me, Lucas looked knackered himself. Apart from the weight loss, his skin was pale. His hair, though black and curly as ever, didn’t have its normal blue luster and was in need of a cut. The champagne bottle gave a hollow sob as he pulled out its cork. He handed out the glasses then folded himself down next to me on one of the Chesterfields. Taking out a packet of cigarettes, he lit one, tilting his head to one side in his diffident way. I found the gesture strangely reassuring, a familiar thing in foreign surroundings. “So, how’re you doing?” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
“I’ve missed you,” I said.
He looked down at his knee, where his fingers were picking at a loose thread in the seam of his trousers. “I should have called you.”
“For God’s sake, Lucas, that doesn’t matter. How are you?”
“Okay, really.” He smiled sadly. “It’s just that I can’t get over the idea he’s not coming back. It doesn’t seem right that someone like that could just be extinguished.” He drew hard on his cigarette and a column of ash fell onto his trousers. “To have that much --- I don’t know --- life force, and for there to be nothing left... So soon after Mum died, too. Three months --- Jo, six months ago I had both of them. The two people I loved most in the world. And he chose it --- that’s what I’ll never understand.”
All the careful words I’d prepared deserted me, so I took his hand and squeezed it. He returned the pressure and then rubbed his thumb slowly against my fingers, as if it were he who was trying to reassure me.
“He liked you, you know.”
“I liked him. I’ve never met anyone like him,” I said truthfully. I had been shocked to hear about Patrick’s suicide. He had been more like a father to Lucas than an uncle. I had met him on a number of occasions, mostly when we’d been at college and he’d taken Lucas and me out to lunch. Even now, the times that I’d spent in his company were especially bright beads among the memories of my university career. Patrick had overwhelmed me. Although he must have been in his late fifties even then, he gave the impression of great strength, both physical and mental. His black hair had been graying a little at the temples but still looked vivid. There was something Homeric about him, as if a measure of the old heroic blood had somehow survived down into a less noble age.
He’d also made me feel as if I had something to offer. One time at the Randolph Hotel, when I’d felt intimidated by the lunching grandees and the formality of the dining room, I’d been trying to describe to him a particularly brash girl in the year above whom Lucas and I both loathed. Although I couldn’t remember what my sound bite had been, I still thought about how he had reached across the table for my hand and said, “You must write one day. You have a wonderful gift for metaphor.” From anyone else it would have sounded affected, but from him, as successful as he was and with what I perceived as his hotline to the cultural hub of things, it was the best compliment I’d ever had. Although our relationship had never been close enough for me to tell him so, he became a sort of inspiration to me, someone who thought I was worth encouraging. In his presence, the world opened up, ready for conquering. And he, this man who could have done anything, had decided to take his own life.
“He hoped you were my girlfriend.”
I laughed to cover my surprise. The question of the relationship between us was an old one, although we had never spoken about it ourselves before.
The first time I had seen Lucas was in our tutor’s room at Oxford in Freshers Week. He was wearing a navy fisherman’s sweater, jeans, and Converse shoes, and despite his height, appeared swallowed by the brown velvet sofa with the dodgy springs which we soon learned not to sit on. He didn’t fight it or nervously try to sit further forward, just let himself disappear into it. I immediately put it down to a self-assurance bred by one of the famous public schools; there were plenty of examples already walking the quads as if they were on their ancestral estates and propping up the college bar with the confidence of the long established. I found them excruciating. One part of me was intimidated and envious that people of eighteen and nineteen could be so confident; the other part wondered how they could be so obtuse as never to experience a moment’s self-doubt.
I soon realized that Lucas was not of that type. After the meeting, in which our tutor had prescribed huge swaths of Homer for translation almost overnight, made a number of jokes in Latin, and assumed on our part a deep familiarity with authors of whom I had barely heard, the five of us repaired to the junior common room for coffee and cigarettes. Lucas, who had hardly spoken in the meeting, turned out to have been to a very low-key private day school in London and lived with his mother, a writer for children, on the borders of West Hampstead. I had watched his long fingers as he rolled an expert cigarette and waited in vain for him to tell me more. He was reserved in a way I hadn’t encountered before.
It was Danny who had always had the line in flashy confidence. He was one of those people who seemed to start university knowing everything and everyone already. On the very first night, when the rest of us had herded together for our virgin trip to the college bar, he had only been able to join us for one drink because he was going on to a party at Balliol.
“He was like this at school,” Lucas had said, shredding a beer mat.
“You went to school together?”
He nodded. “Only for sixth form. And he didn’t start until halfway through the second term --- got kicked out of somewhere smarter. But he was center of attention by lunchtime on his first day.”
“No, actually he’s all right. He’s good fun.”
Over the next few weeks I had learned about the friendship between Danny and Lucas. It had an unusual dynamic. If you’d asked any of us whether we thought that loud, sociable Danny with his wardrobe of cutting-edge urban clothes would have gotten on so well with quiet, kind Lucas in his sweaters and jeans, we would have laughed. But it became clear that there was a strong symbiosis between them. Lucas appreciated Danny because he took it as read that any friend of his was part of the in crowd, and so Lucas was, right from the start. As I was Lucas’s friend, all invitations also extended to me, and that was how the two of us, who, left to our own devices, probably would have spent four years flying undetected by the social radar, came to know a lot of the set at Oxford who lived their lives on larger canvases.
My own relationship with Danny was complicated. I think if I hadn’t been close to Lucas I would have been beneath his notice. As it was, he was obliged to acknowledge me. Sometimes he and I got on quite well. Other times I knew he saw me as an irritating third wheel in their friendship.
Because it wasn’t just Lucas for whom the relationship was important. Lucas provided Danny with something that he didn’t get elsewhere: simple, genuine friendship. At eighteen, Danny’s self-assurance had alienated those less confident, but Lucas had seemed oblivious to it. He also gave him a sort of grounding: he was Danny’s earth wire. From the sound of it, Danny had been out of his parents’ control --- such as it was --- for years, but when things got a bit much and he needed perspective, it was Lucas he sought out.
Sometimes at college Danny pushed himself too hard. Not academically; there was never any danger of that. Annoyingly, there never needed to be. He’d done English with Rachel and he had the greatest natural academic flair of us all. It was galling, especially when he was the only one to get a first. No, when Danny pushed himself too hard at college, it was a question of too much drink, too many drugs, too many nights without sleep. When that happened, he went to find Lucas and after being talked down, he would go to ground in his room for a few days, swaddled in a dressing gown and piteously downing cold medication as if the whole thing wasn’t self-inflicted. Even in that, he managed to exude glamour. Martha and I had talked in the past about how Danny was a little bit like one of the really hedonistic rock stars, a Steven Tyler or Mick Jagger. And as we were in his orbit, we did feel as if some of his star quality reflected on us, but it wasn’t just that. It was enough to know that there was someone out there doing the stuff we talked about. We didn’t have to do the drugs because Danny did them; we could talk as if we knew all about it without actually risking it ourselves. Danny made us feel we were like him --- rock ’n’ roll --- when in fact we were nothing of the sort. We liked the version of ourselves that he made us feel we were. And to some extent I think he liked us because we were the background against which he shone.
Ironically, the only person who could match him in excess was Lucas. He didn’t do drugs but he drank more than anyone else I knew. Whenever Danny was in a drinking phase, he could rely on Lucas to be his brother in arms. Lucas was both a steady drinker and a binge drinker, able to keep up on even the most extreme bender. Most of the time at college he had been a fun person to drink with, but occasionally underneath the jolly social-drinking faade, I saw an edge of need that none of the rest of us had, even Danny. I had never mentioned it --- it was something I didn’t even like to think about myself --- but now and again it had drawn the attention of those in authority. Once in particular, I remember waiting outside in the corridor while our tutor kept Lucas back for a minute. I hadn’t deliberately listened but I couldn’t avoid catching his final words. “Just remember the old Greek wisdom, Lucas,” he’d said. “Nothing in excess.”
In our first term there were several occasions when Lucas and I sat up in the library doing all-nighters when I hoped our growing friendship would shift sideways into something different. We had a surprising amount in common for people from very different backgrounds. We hated sports, especially the team varieties, and loved indie music, which we listened to all the time. We became close quickly. We worked together on essays, sharing notes and breaks in the pub and cooking supper together a couple of times a week to avoid eating in the college dining hall. There were even a few days in the middle of that term when I began to wonder if my feelings for him were reciprocated.
One night, though, I had been out with Martha, with whom I had also become friends, and decided on my drunken return that it would be a good idea to go and see Lucas for a nightcap. Lucas was out but his roommate, a historian from Liverpool, had been in and had a bottle of wine open. He poured me a glass and I talked to him while I waited. Lucas had been over to St. John’s to see a school friend and didn’t get back until past two, by which time I had been drunk enough to be kissing the historian when he opened the door.
After that, things had subtly changed. There was no longer any doubt. As far as Lucas was concerned, I was his friend and that was as far as it went. Martha tried to cheer me up by saying that he clearly liked me and that I’d dented his confidence, but I couldn’t believe that. I was bitterly disappointed and furious with myself about the historian, whose name I now struggled even to remember. I went home for Christmas feeling wretched. I’m not sure how much my family enjoyed having me back that holiday.
Gradually, though, I got used to the idea and soon became aware that lots of people envied my closeness to Lucas, platonic as it was. Men liked him and so did women. He was good-looking in a moderate way, but it was his kindness and lack of interest in fighting for a place in the college pecking order that made him different. I looked at him now and felt a flood of affection for him. Nothing had changed in all the intervening years; he was the same sweet man.
“I’m going to go and wake Michael up,” said Martha. “He’ll miss everything otherwise.”
“Okay,” said Lucas, looking away from me. “He’s in the second room along on the left on the second floor. By the painting of the woman with the enormous hat. Great picture --- you’ll see it properly tomorrow.”
I was looking forward to seeing Michael. He’d been so busy at work that I hadn’t seen him at all before Christmas. I missed his dry sense of humor.
“Do you have plans for the weekend, Lucas?” asked Greg. His voice was deep.
“Nothing specific. I thought we’d just relax, have a few drinks, you know. I’ll show you the rest of the house tomorrow and then I thought I’d cook dinner.”
“Lucas is a great cook,” Rachel explained to Greg. “The best of any of us, by far.”
“Oh, come on,” he said. “Anyway, about the house. I don’t want to set the agenda here. I didn’t earn this place; it’s mine purely by good luck --- or bad. I don’t want it to be a big thing; I’d rather we thought of it as belonging to all of us.” He threw the butt of his cigarette into the fire and stood up to pour some more drinks.
I got up, too, and went over to the other Chesterfield. I kneeled behind it to speak to Rachel, resting my forearms along its studded back. “You’ve had your hair cut,” I said. It was short, not more than an inch all over, with a small fringe that stopped precipitately above her high forehead.
“Thank you. It’s quite ‘fashion’; you don’t think I look like Joan of Arc?”
I laughed. “Not at all --- far too beautiful.”
“That’s bollocks.” Rachel’s directness still had the power to surprise me. It had taken me almost a year after we met to understand that she didn’t mean to be rude.
The door opened and Martha reappeared with Michael. Even after a nap, he looked exhausted. It was amazing that he could do the hours he did. The only thing I could think was that after several years, his body had become accustomed to it and no longer expected reasonable amounts of rest. He had developed a useful type of narcolepsy that allowed him to fall asleep at any point when he wasn’t required to be doing something else, no matter how uncomfortable his position at the time. I gave him a hug.
Danny went out to his bag in the hall and returned with a bottle. “Why did the Mexican push his wife off a cliff?” he asked the room at large.
“Tequila, tequila, tequila.”
“I think Patrick had some shot glasses.” Lucas opened the sideboard and peered in toward the back of the shelf. With a chink, he produced seven tiny glasses. “I’ll go and find some lemon.”
Martha perched on the back of the sofa next to me. She was excited; I could tell from the twinkling in her gray eyes. Her long brown hair was tied up in a sleek arrangement that made her look older and more sophisticated than usual. I felt a rush of affection for her. “I might have known Danny’d do this,” she said. “Things are going to get messy now.”
“You know how much I hate tequila.”
Lucas brought salt and a couple of lemons. He took out a penknife and cut one of them into eighths while Michael filled the glasses. I felt my usual literal gut reaction at the prospect as I held my left hand sideways and let him tip salt into the dent that appeared at the base of my thumb.
“The anatomical snuffbox,” he said.
“Let’s not get medical about this, Michael.” Danny held out his hand.
“He may have to,” I said.
“Everyone ready? Okay, go.”
We pressed our tongues to the salt, knocked back the tequila and clamped our mouths over the lemon pieces. I struggled against the impulse to gag. “Why do we put ourselves through it?”
“Because it’s party juice, brings out the South American in you,” said Danny grinning. It was difficult not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. He had always been a fire-starter, the one of us who could kick off a three-day party by opening a bottle and putting the radio on. Martha looked as if she were about to do the military two-step across the carpet. Tequila seemed to hit her immediately. Her eyes were glistening.
“What time is it?” asked Lucas.
“Shall we have some music?” He crouched in front of a powerful-looking stereo, selected a CD from the pile and slid it into the machine.
Danny grinned as he heard the first bars of Shirley Bassey’s “History Repeating.” “Good choice, man.” The song wrapped its rich, rough sound around us so completely it seemed to be oozing out of the walls. We all danced, even Lucas, who usually appointed himself DJ to avoid having to. Danny stood in front of the fire, gyrating his hips so provocatively that I felt indecent for seeing it. His jeans, which he always wore at holster level, looked about to slide off him entirely.
After a few songs, I started to cough. Clearly we had raised old dust. Greg, dancing next to me, touched my arm. “Are you all right? You’re asthmatic.” It wasn’t a question and I wondered how he knew.
“Inhaler’s in my coat,” I said. “I’ll get it.”My chest was getting tighter. Near my diaphragm, my lungs felt inert; my breath was shallow and ineffectual.
It was colder in the hall again. Quiet, too. Although I knew the music was loud, the drawing-room door was so solid that I could only just hear it. I groped quickly in my coat pocket for the inhaler. People are confused about asthma; they think that you can’t breathe in. In fact, what you can’t do is breathe out. It’s like being buried alive; there’s nowhere for the dead air to go.
After a couple of shots of Ventolin, I began to relax. I coughed to clear my chest and the sound echoed through the house. I looked up, noticing the balconied floors tiered above me, unlit. All the doors leading off the hall were closed. There was a passageway opposite, leading darkly away to the back of the house.
I had the sudden sense that there were eyes on me. “Lucas?” I said, more to puncture the silence than expecting an answer. I knew I was the only person in the house who wasn’t in the drawing room. My skin prickled. The memory of my own voice played in my ear. I took a breath and forced myself to stand still for a minute and look into the unlit corners away from the lamps and up above my head to the landings. I half expected to see someone there, leaning over the banisters watching me. There was nothing. And yet there was. It seemed to me that there was something lurking, something that was not benevolent. With a sudden swell,the darkness seemed to gather around me.A rushing started in my ears, as if the walls themselves were whispering. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I yanked the drawing-room door open and threw myself back into the blaze of light and sound.
“All right?” Lucas was standing just inside.
“Just wheezing a bit. I’ve had some Ventolin now.” I smiled. Back with everyone else, my fear immediately felt irrational and ridiculous.
“Good.” He handed me my glass. “We’ve finished the champagne I brought up. I’ll go and get some more so we’re ready for midnight. Back in a minute.”
I sat down on the edge of the fireguard, glad to have the heat on my back. The chill was still on my skin. Michael came to sit next to me and we watched the dancing, Danny with Martha, Greg with Rachel. Rachel stood on tiptoes to whisper something in Greg’s ear; he laughed and bent his head to kiss her.
“Have you met him before?” I asked Michael quietly.
“Once, a few weeks ago. He’s away a lot with work. He’s phenomenally bright.”
Lucas came back with a tray of fresh glasses and two more bottles tucked under his arm. “Three minutes to go.”
I decided my lungs were working well enough to manage a cigarette. One of the things I appreciated about my real friends, all of whom were around me, was that they never tried to make me give up, despite my asthma. They knew I knew I should and that was enough.
New Year’s Eve was my least favorite night of the year. I didn’t like the weight of expectation it carried, both in the sense that everyone felt obliged to have a good time, as if what they did would set a pattern for the coming year, and with the idea that this year would be different, as if on the turn of midnight we could cast off our old weak-willed selves and become new, better people. I especially disliked resolutions. You can take too many long, hard looks at yourself.
“Turn on the radio, Martha,” said Lucas, tearing the foil from one of the bottles. We were just in time: Big Ben had already started tolling. The sound of it made me shiver, as it always did. Another year gone.
“Happy New Year!” The cork flew out and Lucas poured the champagne, streams of bubbles running down the sides of the glasses. He handed me one and kissed me on the cheek, close enough to my mouth almost to touch my lips.
I returned his look as he pulled away. “Happy New Year.”
“Happier, anyway,” he said. “Cheers.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Danny turn to cut another lemon. I touched Lucas’s sleeve. “Let’s go outside for a cigarette. He’s doing more tequilas.” We took our drinks and slipped out. Lucas snapped on the light in the passageway, which I could now see led to the kitchen. The checkered floor of the hall gave way to large flagstones and roughly whitewashed stone walls. I felt safe with him close to me. Of course there had been no one else in the house. I had imagined it in the heightened, panicky mind-set of my asthma.
We took a turn just before the kitchen and came to a door that was heavily bolted. Lucas pulled back the locks and we stepped outside. At first I couldn’t see anything, but then objects began to draw themselves out of the night, edging themselves round with indigo and assuming form. We were at the side of the house on a sort of high terrace about fifteen feet above a garden, which stretched away from us over a great expanse of lawn to a rim of black trees. It was bitingly cold, even though we had taken coats from the stand. I looked at Lucas and made out chin, nose, and glittering eyes. He handed me a cigarette and lit it, a small explosion of light. Above us, the stars were needle-sharp.
“There’s Orion’s Belt and the Plough. Can you see?” I pointed.
“I’m hopeless at constellations. People show me but I can never see them for myself.”
“I used to be like that. Until that time we went to Greece and someone showed me Orion’s Belt and now I can always find it.”
We sat down on the balustrade that ran around the edge of the terrace and I swung my legs out over the drop. A sole milky cloud moved off the moon. Below us the lawn sparkled with frost. “This is an incredible place. I can’t believe it’s yours.”
“I never imagined that Patrick would leave it to me. No, that’s a stupid thing to say; who else would he leave it to?” He ran a hand through his hair.“I didn’t expect him to die, anyway, and somehow I thought the house would go when he did. It was so much a part of him.” The tip of his cigarette glowed orange. “I got pretty much the lot. The flat in Hampstead is sold already and I’ve found an agent to sell the gallery and the stock for me. I couldn’t do anything with it. I don’t know the first thing about art and people bought from Patrick because of his reputation. I mean, who’d buy art from me?”
I shivered and moved closer to him for warmth. Without thinking, I slipped my arm through his. I had done it on a hundred other occasions but tonight it wasn’t comfortable or uncomplicated. In the past he wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but now Lucas turned to look at me and our eyes met for a moment. I looked down quickly in case he thought I was --- what? Flirting? I was embarrassed that he might think that and yet part of me wanted him to. Something was shifting, I could feel it. Why had he told me that Patrick had hoped I was his girlfriend? And that kiss earlier. I wondered whether he would lean in and kiss me now but he didn’t and the moment passed. We sat in silence, the garden below us completely still. Now that my eyes were accustomed, I could see it quite distinctly, the formal bed below us, planted with pampas grasses and leafless rosebushes, the lawn and the evergreen laurels that bordered it where it met the wall at the back of the house.
“You could do anything here,” I said after a while. “There’s absolutely no one to hear you.”
“I’m serious about what I said earlier. I really do want you --- and the others --- to think of it as your place. It’s no fun being king of the castle if you’re on your own.”
I put my arms around him and squeezed. “You’re brilliant.”
After a little while, I grew more used to the cold and we stayed outside for some time, smoking more cigarettes and feeling the silence of the country night around us. Finally, though, Lucas stood up. “Let’s go in. I’m freezing my balls off out here,” he said, taking my hand as I swung my legs back over the balustrade.
Inside, Michael was asleep on one of the Chesterfields. Greg and Rachel had gone to bed. The fire was burning down and the tequila was gone, the bottle on its side next to a pile of eviscerated lemon pieces. Martha was crouched at the stereo with a pile of CDs on either side of her. “Can’t decide what to play,” she said. Danny was sitting cross-legged in front of the dying fire rolling a spliff, the tip of his tongue sticking out between his teeth.
“Do you want another drink?” said Lucas, holding a champagne bottle up to the light.
I shook my head.
“Yeah, it’s time for bed. I’ll show you your room. I’ve just got to make sure everything’s safe down here and set the burglar alarm. It terrifies me to think what would happen if anyone got in here.”
It was late morning when I woke and my room was suffused by a blank light, as if it had snowed during the night. I pushed back the heavy cotton sheets and went over to the window. It was cold out of bed. There wasn’t any snow but the garden was white with frost. I stood for a while looking out at the long expanse of lawn, thinking how good it was to be able to stand there in a T-shirt without anyone to see. The house Martha and I shared in London was overlooked by the backs of the terrace behind us and we had to keep the curtains drawn until we were dressed.
I had been so tired and drunk the night before that I hadn’t paid much attention to the room. Given the size of the house it seemed comparatively small, although it was bigger than any I’d ever had. Being on the top floor, it must have been servants’ quarters in the past. It was still simply decorated. The bed had a wrought-iron frame and at the foot of it there was a stout mahogany trunk. There was a chest of drawers and small fireplace, with an arrangement of dried flowers in the hearth and two crystal candlesticks on the mantelpiece. The walls, unevenly plastered and painted a thick cream, were bare apart from a large oil painting over the bed. I kneeled up on the pillows for a closer look. It was a classical scene, nymphs bathing in a river, their long blonde hair floating around them in the dark water. On the bank, entranced by his own reflection in the water, lay Narcissus. I wondered if it had always been there or if Lucas had put it in my room, knowing I would like it.
My dress was in a silken pool on the rug; I picked it up and shook it out by the straps. It would have to be dry-cleaned before it was worn again but I put it on a hanger on the back of the door anyway. I changed into a navy sweater and jeans and put my boots on.Then I packed away my tights and shoes from the night before and made the bed, tucking the sheets in until they covered the mattress like fondant icing. As I pulled the door closed behind me, I checked that everything was tidy, as if it were a hotel and not a friend’s place at all.
It seemed that I was first up; everything was silent. I stood at the banister and saw the house in daylight for the first time. I had the feeling of someone left in a vast museum after hours, half alarmed, half excited by being alone with things that other people saw only under supervision. Below me was the whorl of staircases and landings and the checkered hall floor. Looking up, I saw that the roof was domed, something I hadn’t noticed from outside in the dark. At the base of it there was a complete circle of windows and the white winter light poured through them.
Above my head was one of the most spectacular paintings I had ever seen. The inside of the dome was a painted bowl of almost unbelievable richness, a myriad of shades of blue and gold and pomegranate pink and red, intricate and at the same time epic. It was like a secular version of a Renaissance church fresco, one of the very best. It depicted a convocation of the gods, a council or a drinking party. I thought of the scene at the beginning of the Iliad where the gods are lounging on Olympus, drinking and squabbling about whose favorite is going to be allowed to win the war while the human warriors are spilling their blood on the plains of Troy below.
At the center of the tableau a figure I took to be Zeus lay on a golden couch. He was an exercise in controlled male strength, muscular shoulders and arms at odds with the relaxed pose, a head of shining black hair. He wore a white robe bordered in purple and enough gold jewelry around his neck and wrists to look at home on a hip-hop video. There were rings set with huge gems on his fingers. One of his arms dropped idly over the arm of the couch toward a woman with hair the color of dark chocolate, which wound down her back and over the white folds of her dress. She was on her knees, her spine a smooth curve as she bent to kiss Zeus’ hand. The dress was slipping off her shoulder to reveal the round of one brown breast. At the other end of the couch, also kneeling, was another woman, also dark-haired and identically clothed, although her dress sat demurely on her shoulders. This goddess held Zeus’ feet in her hands, her long white fingers closing gently around his toes. It wasn’t immediately clear who the two women were. The one kissing Zeus’ hand was obviously more sexual. The other was ethereal, her expression contemplative, even a little sad, as she looked away from the group into the sky that surrounded them. Perhaps the first was Aphrodite, the second Hera. Zeus looked straight down out of the picture, as if he were trying to establish eye contact. His gaze was dark and unreadable. There was no anger in it but also no pleasure, no joy at finding himself king of the world.
Around the main group were arranged a number of other figures. There was an easily identifiable Ganymede with an ornate drinking bowl, his muscles taut under golden skin as he proffered it. A couple of other gods stood a little way back, leaning together conspiratorially. Again, I had no idea who they might be. Near the neat white feet of the goddess I thought might be Hera two children played, round and rosy like putti. Vines grew around the scene, curling up the legs of the couch, the bright green leaves here and there revealing clusters of fat ripe grapes.
Abruptly the light withdrew and the painting faded. What sun there had been was gone. I gave the ceiling a last look then turned and made my way downstairs. Years of feet had worn away the center of the pale strip of green carpet that ran down the landings like a stream. All the doors I passed were closed, but I didn’t think about what was behind them. My attention was on the art: the walls were bristling with paintings of extraordinary quality. Some of the artists I didn’t know but others I recognized from books and exhibitions. On the main wall of the first floor landing there was a huge Jackson Pollock. I had never seen one in the flesh before. I had to stop myself from reaching out to touch the storm of red and black paint. A little further down at a landing in the stairs there was one of Julian Schnabel’s famous plate portraits. I understood now why all the walls were white. The entire house was a display case for a world-class art collection.
We had breakfast in the kitchen, a large room with a black-and-white floor like the one in the hall and French windows that opened onto a walled garden at the back of the house. A long oak table stood in front of the glass and I looked out as we ate. The garden was still ice-bound. A fine film of glittering frost covered the paths and the leafless espalier trees trained up against the far wall. Most of the raised beds were empty, although there was a small herb garden and also a cluster of gooseberry bushes and raspberry canes. A robin pecked at the thin layer of ice on a puddle about five feet away until Martha dropped a knife. The noise reached him through the glass and he looked up and saw us for the first time, before taking off in alarm.
“People had to be tougher then,” said Lucas. “Nowadays everyone seems to pretend death doesn’t happen.” There was a fraught silence, punctured only when Danny took a loud crunch into a slice of toast. Lucas smiled. “This is a morbid conversation for the first day of a new year.”
After we’d washed up and tidied the drawing room from the night before, the others went out in the car to get cigarettes and the papers. Danny went off for a long bath and I asked Lucas to show me the house.
We started in Patrick’s study, the only room on the top floor that was neither a bedroom or a bathroom. “He liked the atmosphere in here and the view,” said Lucas. I followed him over to the window and saw more or less the same as I had from my own, two doors down. The room itself was remarkably plain. It was painted white, of course, but there was a simple beige carpet under our feet instead of the Turkish rugs and rich fabrics of the rooms downstairs. The curtains were plain green and there was no art on the walls. Two leather armchairs were the only furniture, apart from sun-bleached cushions on the window seat and a bureau. I picked up the photograph that stood on top of it. It showed Patrick at what I guessed was his gallery, in a velvet jacket, sideburns, and longish black curly hair remarkably like Lucas’s. He was with Thomas Parrish, one of his most famous artists, and a feline woman in a Bianca Jagger-style trouser suit. He looked slimmer but otherwise very much like the Patrick I had known. He was in the middle of the shot, his arms around the shoulders of the other two. It was the classic pose of people celebrating their success. Patrick and Parrish were grinning; I suspected they’d had a few drinks. The woman’s smile was less open, and although she was looking straight into the camera, there was something guarded about her expression.
Lucas riffled the edge of a stack of paper with his thumb. “As you can see, I haven’t pulled myself together enough to sort through his stuff yet.” The desktop was like a still life in itself, the business equivalent of Tracey Emin’s unmade bed. There were piles of glossy catalogues, letters, invitations, postcards advertising exhibitions. A glass ashtray full of paperclips had found the one paperless patch. I took a step back. It felt like an invasion of privacy to be in the room, let alone looking over the paperwork. It was as if Patrick had only just walked away.
That feeling stayed with me as we did the tour. It seemed as if Patrick were one room ahead of us, slipping away just as we opened each new door. I’ve never been in a house that so strongly bore the imprint of its owner. All houses give clues to the people who live in them, in the decoration and the things left lying around, the photographs, the books, the tennis rackets, but this was something beyond that. It was as if Patrick’s spirit, his energy, his fierce intelligence, the sheer scale of him, were manifested in this building.
We went in and stood just inside. It looked much like any of the other bedrooms on this floor, several of which he had shown me. There was a large double bed covered by an embroidered throw with a wildflower pattern, a nightstand on either side. The large sash window looked out on the lawns by the front door and the drive beyond that. There was a low Victorian chair by the window and a tall chest of drawers. But if the appearance of the room was unremarkable, its atmosphere was immediately different from that of the rest of the house. It had no life. Instead the room had a mausoleum air; it was a sad place, closed off and somehow lonely. I wondered if Lucas had crept away here sometimes, to try to imagine that first his father and now his mother were still here, waking up in the bed or dressing for dinner. Only two things suggested its occupants. There was no evidence of Lucas’s father, but on the top of the chest of drawers there was a brush and hand-mirror set and on the table to the right of the bed there was a silver-framed photograph of a smiling, gap-toothed Lucas aged about seven. I didn’t want to pry by looking closer, especially when he was radiating tension beside me. Now I noticed that the throw on the photograph side of the bed was slightly rumpled, as if someone had lain down there to catch the trace of old perfume on the pillows.
On the second landing we stopped and looked at the ceiling. There was no sun to illuminate it now and it looked more remote somehow, although just as beautiful. A door opened behind us and Danny appeared, damp from the bath and naked apart from a small towel tucked neatly around his hips. His body was slim but with just the right amount of gym-worked muscle. I looked away, embarrassed.
I looked again for details that would help me interpret it but there were none of the usual symbols, the bows and arrows or winged feet or apples. “There aren’t many clues, are there? When was it painted?”
“I can never think of his name. I’m pretty sure he was American. There’ll be paperwork; I’ll find out for you.” As he moved away, I caught the scent of him, the expensive cologne that he once told me he started wearing because it reminded him of Patrick, and a hint of cigarette smoke.
Suddenly there was a sharp cracking sound above our heads and we all looked up. One of the windows around the base of the dome must have been open because a bird had got in and was now thrashing around in the dish of the ceiling, unable to understand how it couldn’t fly through into the false heaven beyond the painted figures. We watched as it grew increasingly panicked.
Lucas and I watched the bird for about a minute, its distress increasingly obvious. Suddenly, with a great beating of wings, it swooped and for a moment I thought it had spied the open window. But instead of finding its way out, it threw itself against the glass. There was a dull thud, as if it had hit the windshield of a car, and then it fell past us and landed below on one of the white tiles. Lucas and I ran down to it.
It was clear at once that it was dead. It had fallen on its back, its legs bent up and its wings slightly splayed behind it. Its neck was twisted and it looked at us with one open bloodied eye. It was a robin. I pressed the back of my index finger against the red of its breast and felt the warmth of its tiny body. I looked round for Lucas and saw that he was some steps behind me. He was transfixed by the bird, unable to take his eyes off it. He looked as though he were about to be sick.
“Will you clear it up?” he asked, looking at me at last. “There’s a dustpan and brush and cleaning stuff in the cupboard next to the kitchen. I’m going upstairs for a moment.” He ran up the stairs past me and I heard his feet going along the landings until he reached his room on the top floor. The door closed firmly behind him.
We parceled the broken body up in the newspaper and cleaned the floor where it had fallen. Danny wanted just to put the packet in the dustbin but I couldn’t. I took the door which Lucas and I had used the previous evening and went outside. The air was so cold I could taste it. I made my way gingerly down the icy steps at the side of the terrace, making sure each foot was firmly planted before moving the other. There was no handrail. When I reached ground level, I crouched down and tried to dig a hole in the flower bed that bordered the lawn, but the earth was frozen hard. Instead I swept together some dead leaves and used them to cover the bird and its newspaper shroud as best I could. “I’m sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t sure why. As I stood to go back into the house, I saw Lucas watching from the window on the top floor. I raised a hand and he lifted his in response.
Lucas stayed in his room for almost an hour and so I gave up on looking round the house and sat in front of the fire with the others. Martha was reading the paper and Danny lay across her, his head in her lap. “You’re getting it in my eyes,” he said, batting at the bottom of the review section she was holding.
Michael was using the phone in the hall to ring work. Clearly his boss was aggravated by his absence from the office; I could hear the defensive tone in the polite words that reached us through the open door.
I wondered what it was like to have a job which meant being almost permanently available. Despite Michael’s assertion that it was nightmarish, I thought it must be exciting sometimes to work at that level.
Danny laughed, pleased with the answer. He was the first to acknowledge that he had no work ethic at all. His quicksilver brain allowed him to do the bare minimum required of him and at the last minute. Sailing so close to the wind seemed to inspire him. At college Rachel had told us that after the sketchiest readings of texts he would come up with insights far brighter than those of the rest of their tutorial group, who had toiled over the books for days. We suspected the same was true of his job. He never seemed to be at the office. Lucas would often get calls from him in the middle of the day from parks or cafes by the river or record shops. And yet he had been promoted way above his contemporaries at the ad agency. The quicksilver approach was ideal. Advertising didn’t need someone who labored; it needed someone who, having stared out of the window for most of the meeting, would casually deliver the definitive slogan, the one that the public would adopt into current parlance as naturally as if it were a figure of speech handed down from their parents. He had done it twice and on two of the agency’s biggest and highest-profile campaigns, once for a vodka which was now the most ordered brand in the country and once for a new soft drink being launched in the U.K. by a major American brand. His position as the agency’s youngest VP was assured, as was a salary I couldn’t imagine seeing before I was fifty, let alone at twenty-nine.
We made sandwiches and ate them by the fire. Lucas was still subdued but brushed me away, saying he was fine. At a little past three o’clock, he stood up decisively. “Come on,” he said. “I want to show you all the garden before it gets any darker.”
In the thickening light the afternoon felt eerie. The ice hadn’t really loosened its grip during the day, but I had the sense nonetheless that the garden was bracing itself once more against the coming night, like a woman waiting for the knee in the base of her spine and the tightening of her corset. There was silence.
We picked our way down the stone steps and set off across the lawn, the compounded frost on the grass crunching under our feet. Our breath puffed out, feathered, and vanished. I shoved my hands in my pockets; even with gloves on, they were quickly cold. After three or four minutes we reached the edge of the lawn and the beginning of the wood. The evening was more advanced under the trees. In the gloom I could make out a tangle of undergrowth and fallen branches. It was an old, natural wood; there were different types of trees and no pattern in the way they were planted. Now and again the breeze rushed the bare branches and sent them clattering above us like an ironic round of applause. I pulled my coat around me.
“The wood is one of my favorite things here,” Lucas said. “If you walk in a bit, there’s a river. It’s not that wide but it’s great for swimming in the summer, really deep. You can even dive. It’s probably frozen now, though.”
We followed the edge of the wood around the perimeter of the lawn until we reached the back of the house. Behind it was the walled garden I’d seen from the kitchen window and beyond that an apple orchard. Lucas took us through the kitchen garden and past two old-fashioned wooden-framed greenhouses. There was the low hum of a generator. I looked through the glass to see vines with elephantine trunks and glossy green leaves. “There’ll be grapes later on. He looked after them himself, wouldn’t let anyone touch them.”
The path took us to the gravel drive at the front. “We’re going to have dinner in the dining room tonight, probably about nine.” Lucas looked at his watch. “It’s quarter to four now. I’m going to go and start cooking, so why don’t you walk down to the pub in the village? We’ll have a drink in the library before dinner.”
“No, you go; I like cooking on my own. Be careful on your way back up; it’ll be very dark. You’ll be fine, though; Jo can navigate by the stars.” He touched me lightly on the arm. “See you later.” He walked up the path and disappeared through the front door.
The White Swan still had its Christmas decorations up and there was something of the aging showgirl about the tree in the corner; a good portion of its needles had dropped and the wink of its lights suggested a desperate eleventh-hour invitation. Along the beams, blue and purple tinsel sagged between thumbtacks. A young guy in a baseball cap and empty-looking jeans was feeding the slot machine, his left leg jiggling with the skittering of lights across the display. The publican, a tired-looking man with a lined forehead, made our drinks and pushed a fistful of crisps packets across the bar. “You from the manor?” he asked and gave an upward half-nod when we confirmed it. “Poor bugger.” It wasn’t a conversation either side seemed inclined to continue, so we thanked him and took our drinks to the table in the corner. I guessed that what went on at the manor was the subject of much village speculation. At the mention of the place, a fair-haired man hunched over the paper looked up at once and scrutinized us. I looked back at him. His eyes were a burned-out paraffin blue. He met my gaze and quickly returned his attention to his reading.
“No,” Rachel said. “His father died years ago, when Lucas was nine or ten.” She looked at me, a question in her eyes. I nodded. “Greg, only Lucas’s close friends know this, but it’s probably best if you do, too. His father killed someone.”
“He won’t talk about his mother either,” Danny went on. “They were really tight,” he explained. “I mean, she was nice and everything, as much as you saw of her, but she was quite distant. She wrote kids’ books and it was like she and Lucas lived in a fantasy world together. It was only really Patrick they allowed near them. Bit weird.”
It was true that Lucas’s relationship with his mother had been intense, but I knew that it was quite common for children, especially boys, to try to fill the place of a missing parent and become a surrogate adult. It was also true that he had never talked much about Claire. Part of the reason, I suspected, was because he was very protective of her, but it had also occurred to me that perhaps he was almost selfishly keeping her to himself, making sure that no one else could know her or own her as he did. He was proud of her and her books --- there was another full collection of them in the drawing room at the house, the titles large in their angular Gothic script --- and his own ambition to write was inspired by her. But she had been very serious, and at times I wondered whether Lucas might not have been more confident and easygoing if he’d had a mother with a lighter heart.
“Depends what you mean by successful,” I said, watching as he curled his hands around his pint glass. “She had a following, but although in theory she wrote for children, most of her fans were adults. The books are actually very sad. There’s always a missing parent --- normally a missing father. And they’re really dark. She didn’t make much money, though, which is why having all this is a bit of a shock for Lucas.”
Danny ran his hand through his shaggy hair and surreptitiously checked himself out in the smoked-glass mirror above my head. Wherever he woke up, he liked to give the impression that he’d just fallen out of some glamorous, bohemian bed or other. One of the things that had always fascinated me about his appearance was the dark shadowing around his eyes, like thick and expertly applied kohl. It made his eyes especially startling, and though he claimed it was natural, I suspected him of exaggerating it with eyeliner. “Well, however you look at it, it’s an amazing old place,” he said.
“It’s called integrity, Danny.” Rachel laid a reassuring hand on his. I held my breath but he flashed her a smile. None of the rest of us, except Lucas, of course, could have got away with a comment like that.
I lit a cigarette and took a long drag. I’d spoken to Lucas about work the evening before and he’d assured me that he had no intention of giving up his job. “No,” he said. “I’ve invested too much. Two years at law school, two more as a trainee and three since then. It would be stupid to leave before I really get anywhere. Anyway, I’ve got a point to prove.” He grinned. “Patrick said I wouldn’t do it because it was too boring, but I told him I wanted a normal job. Now I have to show him.”
I didn’t question his need still to do that. Although I knew I should try to talk to him about Patrick, and that maybe he was waiting for me to ask, I didn’t know if I would be able to bring up the subject. I didn’t have the equipment to do it. His bereavement moved him away from me. Not because he had become withdrawn, although he had, a little. It was more that, with my family complete, I felt I didn’t have the right to try to empathize. In fact, I felt guilty for being unscathed.
“I couldn’t remember whether you like olives or not.” Lucas handed me up a martini, its surface tilting dangerously in the wide-rimmed glass. A single glossy olive was threaded onto a cocktail stick balanced across it.
I was sitting on the top step of the library ladder, high enough to give me perspective on the room. One of the things I liked about Lucas was the trouble he took to make sure other people enjoyed themselves. He had been into drama at college and I sometimes thought that that creativity, firmly bottled in his professional life, was now channeled into his hospitality. When we had come downstairs after changing for dinner, the library door was open for the first time. A rosy light fell a few paces out into the hall and Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” was playing. Lucas, wearing a black corduroy jacket that gave him an air of the Left Bank and with a cigarette tucked into the corner of his mouth, had been mixing the drinks.
Even by the standards of the rest of the house, the library was an imposing room. Two walls lined entirely with bookshelves reaching to the ceiling were policed by ladders that moved across them on runners. At the near end of the room there was a large circular desk with two green glass reading lamps on it and at the other, in front of windows now masked by heavy tapestry curtains, there were leather armchairs in which Greg and Michael were sitting. Martha perched on the arm of Michael’s chair, her arm along the back of it behind his head. Danny and Rachel were looking at the picture on the opposite wall, a nude of some proportions.
“What? Oh, these.” I looked down at my feet, hooked over a lower step. My shoes were black pony skin with two small diamante buckles at the front. I was wearing them with fine-mesh fishnet tights. “Yes.”
I stayed on the ladder and finished my drink. I was flushed and I could still feel his touch on my skin. There had been a time when there had literally been nothing I wanted more than for him to touch me like that, in a way that suggested he found me attractive.
If he was trying to make me think differently about him, why now, after all this time, I wondered. There was so much more at stake. At college we could have tried it out and, if it hadn’t worked, allowed a few weeks, a term, and gone back to being friends. Now we had history. We were at an age where former relationships were layered up on us like coats of old paint; if you chipped a surface you could see the unflattering shades that had gone before. Our ten years --- more --- of friendship had endured all that. It was worth a huge amount to me, too much to put it in jeopardy unless I thought there was a chance that it might be right. And although none of us at the house were settled or even heading that way --- except Rachel and Greg, maybe --- other friends were getting married, buying houses, having children. It was not a time to get things wrong.
And what if I had misread him? A decade of being friends meant we touched each other without thinking now. It hadn’t been like that in the beginning; neither of us were naturally tactile people and as we did get to know each other better, the question of attraction meant we were wary of physical contact, at least until the night he found me with his roommate. For about six months after that we skirted each other hyper-solicitously and then slowly eased into our current familiarity. Perhaps he was now so relaxed around me that it didn’t occur to him that I might interpret his stroking my foot like that as flirtatious.
On the other hand again, if Lucas were showing me his heart and I didn’t respond, I might never be given another opportunity. Although at eighteen, through the screen of my own self-consciousness, I’d thought there was no way he couldn’t realize he was attractive, I knew now that that wasn’t true. He had never been confident with women.
After the library, the hall was chill on my bare arms, but there was another fire in the dining room. The flames cast a flickering glow on a mahogany table which stretched almost the length of the room and whose surface was so highly polished that there seemed to be two of everything on it: glasses, cutlery, and the three silver candlesticks that marked the center like masts on a schooner. The air was filled with the warm scent of burning wood and roasting meat. Against the back wall there was an antique sideboard with a tray of liqueurs and Benares-ware bowls of oranges and nuts. Lucas put his head around the door next to it, which lead from the kitchen. “Danny, why don’t you take that end of the table, Rachel and Greg on either side of you, Michael and Martha in the middle, then Jo and I?”
There was asparagus soup to start, then a huge joint of glistening beef that Lucas carved into slices so fine they were almost translucent. Bowls full of green beans, broccoli, parsnips, carrots. Horseradish circulated in a tiny silver cauldron with a blue glass inside. “You’ve outdone yourself, mate,” said Danny, spooning another couple of potatoes onto his plate.
There were five or six bottles of wine on the table and though I was drinking quickly, my glass never seemed to get emptier. All the time we were eating I was aware of Lucas next to me as if I could feel the heat of his body. Down the table Michael was telling one of his ludicrous anecdotes involving colleagues of his insisting upon visits to City strip clubs. Martha and I still found it amazing that he got taken along on these jollies regardless of the fact that he wasn’t at all interested in the dancers. Rachel laughed, her head tipped right back, displaying her long neck and bringing her small breasts higher in her dress, a fact that hadn’t escaped Danny, who leaned in dangerously.
“Come back over the weekend,” he said, topping up my glass again. I looked at his hand as it held the bottle, twisting it to avoid spilling any. He had very deft hands; he could shuffle a pack of cards like no one else I knew. They were lovely to look at, too, with long, straight fingers and rounded nails. Artist’s hands, Martha said.
We went out onto the terrace, just as we had the evening before. I was glad to have the coat that Lucas had taken from the stand in the hall for me, despite the smell of dust on it. I wasn’t sure, it might have been accidental, but I think that as he had helped me put it on, his fingers had very lightly stroked the nape of my neck. The skin there still tingled. Again, the cold and silence outside made everything hyperreal, the stretch of lawn and the trees beyond, all washed in pallid moonlight. We sat down on the balustrade and I swung my legs over, careful not to snag my tights.
“Cigarette?” He lit two and passed me one of them. The cold had sobered me up a bit and I was surprised when he suddenly took my spare hand. I felt the pressure of our fingers against each other. “You’re freezing,” he said, and slipped my hand inside his jacket, holding it against his chest. Very faintly, I could feel his heartbeat. I looked up at him. He was watching me intently, as if he were trying to read my face.
Then he kissed me. He rested his lips very gently on mine, nearly motionless, testing to see if I would pull away. Almost imperceptibly, he moved up so that my top lip was between his. Little by little, he increased the pressure and then we were kissing properly. I had imagined it so many times I could hardly believe it was happening. He moved his leg back over the balustrade so that he was astride it and pulled me closer to him, his lips hardly leaving mine for a second, his hands pressing against the small of my back. I dropped my cigarette behind me and put my arms around him, feeling the furrows of his cord jacket under my hands.
He pulled me back to him and we kissed again. Now the surprise was fading, I had a hunger for him. I wanted to fill up my senses with him, taste him, vacuum up the smell of him, run my hands all over him.
It was very late by the time the others went to bed. Greg and Rachel were first, then Michael and Martha, who collared Danny and took him upstairs, picking up an open bottle of red and pressing it into his hand by way of persuasion. Lucas took a decanter from the sideboard and we went back to the library.
The fire had almost gone out but he coaxed it back to life with another round of kindling and small coals. I sat down on the rug and took the half-inch of whisky he handed me, twisting the cut-glass tumbler so that it glinted with the light of the new flames. The first sip burned my throat. Lucas sat down next to me. “Did you notice the others watching us?” he asked. “When we got back in, I thought I was going to die laughing. I’ve never seen such poor attempts to act normally.”
I had another sip of the whisky and kept it in my mouth, breathing over it to feel how it burned. I liked the glow it left when I finally swallowed. Kissing Lucas felt a bit like smoking on my sixteenth birthday; I knew I could now, but the glamour of doing so after having not been able to still lingered.
The bumps and laughter upstairs stopped as the others went to sleep and the night took over. Little by little the house closed in behind us. Lucas had turned off the lamps so the only light we had came from the fire and the two candles on the mantelpiece.
“Oh, some of the original story is true. It’s true that he was pissed and that he was driving back from the pub in the village and he ran a man over, or hit him, I don’t know. The one sure thing is that Dad vanished. He abandoned the car and disappeared. We never heard from him again. He left his wallet with all his cards and his bank accounts were never touched. Patrick tried for years to find out what happened. After the police failed to come up with anything, he tried private detectives and even looked himself, but he never found a trace. There was no way that Patrick wouldn’t have found him if he’d been alive. Dad must have been so frightened and ashamed of what he’d done that he took himself off somewhere and committed suicide.”
“Mum kept looking for him. She wouldn’t give up. After two or three years Patrick told her that she should stop and that she was hurting herself by refusing to believe he was dead, in the face of all the evidence. He thought it would be best to have him declared dead so she could at least get some closure on it but she wouldn’t do it, just in case.
“Because it was easier not to. Because I was ashamed. I mean, if you’re killed in an accident, even if you cause it, it’s out of your control, isn’t it? But if you kill yourself, it’s worse for your family. He abandoned us by choice. We still loved him but he chose to leave us.” He looked up and I saw that his eyes were wet, too.“I always used to wonder whether, if I’d been different, he might have thought I was worth staying for.”
I held him silently, feeling him tremble through the layers of shirt and jacket. Over his shoulder I looked out into the darkness that had settled over the room like mustard gas. I had been completely uprooted by the evening, first the seismic shift in our relationship and now this new revelation. I tried an old trick, attempting to anchor myself in the real world by concentrating on the solidity of material things, but the room seemed unwilling to help me. The furniture wouldn’t pull itself out of the darkness. It stayed back, identifiable only here and there where the gleam of the fire and the candles landed on it. I hadn’t imagined it. There was something here, in the house, something unhappy. I felt a sudden need to protect Lucas from it and what it might do to him. And us. On the one hand, the house had finally brought us together. But on the other, it was the cradle for this terrible secret. I could only hope that it didn’t have the power to destroy what it had so recently created. Although this had taken me by surprise, I wanted us to have a chance.
The House at Midnight
- Genres: Fiction
- hardcover: 336 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books
- ISBN-10: 034549931X
- ISBN-13: 9780345499318