Liz nodded and then asked, ‘Well?’
‘After that business with Andy Moorhouse, I mean.’ Caroline hated lying but she had to; no one must know the real reason for their problems. What had happened out in Africa had almost been the end of the twins. She put Liz’s cup of tea in front of her and asked, ‘How’s Neville? I haven’t seen him for days.’
‘As right as he ever is.’
‘That doesn’t sound any too happy.’
As Liz put down her cup it rattled slightly in the saucer, and Caroline raised an eyebrow.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Do I ever complain about Neville?’
‘Not in my hearing you don’t.’
‘Well, I am now. I need to tell someone.’
‘About how unhappy you are?’
‘You get first prize for being so perceptive. Yes, about how unhappy I am. We married when I was only nineteen, all stars in my eyes and as naive as it was possible to be. Hugh and Guy coming so close together definitely sharpened me up. I was on a high and Neville at least noticed I existed then. But there’s no need for mothering now they’re grown up, and I haven’t got Neville any more, either. I’ve fallen into a great void.’ Liz got out a tissue and blew her nose.
Caroline reached across the table and patted her hand in sympathy.
‘You see, now the twins are so much better you’ve got doctoring to go back to, and you feel valued outside your home. I’ve nothing.’ Tears welled in her eyes and she gave a small apologetic smile. ‘Sorry for being so feeble. I managed to squeeze in making some cheese scones between getting home from nursery and Neville coming in for lunch, but he just waved them aside, as if they were of no consequence, and rushed out of the door. I was so upset. How pathetic can you get?’
‘I’d no idea . . . you always seem so confident and full of verve ... so
‘I’m going to confide in you now, not because you’re the Rector’s wife, but because we’ve been friends for so long . . .’ Liz looked up. ‘We never sleep together, not any more.’
Caroline, as the Rector’s wife, was the target for more intimate disclosures than you could shake a stick at, but this, from someone who appeared to her to be a sophisticated, up-to-the-minute woman, came as a shock. She was struck dumb, and Liz didn’t know what to do or where to look.
Finally Caroline said, ‘Well, maybe that’s right for you. Nowadays, unless one is rampaging round the bedroom two or three times a night one gets the idea that one’s marriage has failed miserably. But it’s not like that, not really. Every night or twice a week suits some people, whereas twice a month is perfectly satisfactory for others.’
‘It’s not even once a year.’
‘I see. That is a bit . . . well . . . miserable.’
Liz began to feel foolish. She should never have said a word about it. After all, Caroline had never suspected anything was wrong with her. Which there wasn’t, not really. But he was so cold, and even more self-obsessed than when they married. How she’d admired that early ruthless ambition of his, but in truth it was that very ambition which had killed their marriage. If someone didn’t match up to his expectations, he dismissed them as worthless and of no use to him in his meteoric rise to . . . what? Wealth? Position? Adoration? Yes, he loved adoration, and she, his wife, no longer adored him. In fact, in some ways, she despised him.
‘Ummm? Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said.’
Caroline repeated her piece of advice. ‘I said, a holiday, that’s what you need, on your own. With space to think, to refresh mind and body. How about it?’
‘But how would Neville manage on his own? He has difficulty finding the kettle.’
Caroline burst out laughing. ‘Finding the kettle? You’ve been too thoughtful over the years, Liz. Much too kind.’
From their spot in the garden they could hear movement in the kitchen.
Alarmed someone might have overheard their conversation, Liz whispered, ‘Is that Dottie? I thought we were on our own otherwise I wouldn’t have—’
Peter appeared in the doorway. ‘Hello, you two. Is there any more tea in the pot?’
‘You’re back! Sorry, darling, we’ve drunk it all. Shall I . . .?’ Caroline made to get up.
‘Stay where you are. I’ll make a pot and drink it in my study. I’ve got notes to make.’
‘OK. Good meeting?’
‘If a quarter of an hour discussing the merits of horse manure for the Dean’s recent venture into rhubarb growing and the best time of year to apply it, has anything at all to do with applying to the lottery fund for money for the Abbey bells, then yes.’ Peter stood quite still for a moment, smiling and admiring Liz and Caroline sitting there in the sun in their bright frocks.
Liz sat there admiring
. Being 6ft 5in he’d had to step out of the doorway onto the garden path in order to stand upright and, with the sun catching his strawberry-blond hair and emphasizing the extraordinary blue of his eyes, she didn’t think there was anyone more gorgeous than Peter Harris, Rector of this parish. Then she saw the loving expression on his face when he looked at Caroline, and almost choked; the glow of deep love between them seared her heart. It was all too much. Much too much, and she felt sick with dissatisfaction at her particular plight. If Neville looked at her like that
for one single moment
she’d be satisfied. Liz daren’t look at Caroline because if she did she’d have to leap up, rush home and break down in tears. The Harrises’ pleasure in each other, compared with the stark emptiness of her life at the moment, was unbearable.
Peter turned to go inside and for a while the only sound was of birds twittering in the beech hedge along the bottom of the garden. Eventually Caroline cleared her throat and said, ‘We’ll talk about this another time, eh?’
Liz said, ‘Yes. Yes, of course. Sorry for burdening you with it all. Just nonsense really. Well, no, it isn’t. It’s very real. I’ve tried the candlelight supper and the wine and the sexy nightdress - but it makes no impact at all. I’m appalled,
I’ve sunk to such ridiculous levels. It’s pathetic. I realize we’ve completely and absolutely lost contact. Just forget it.’ Liz got to her feet. ‘Must go. Remember how lucky you are, you know.’ She nodded towards the house. And left.
Caroline heard Liz call out to Peter to say she was leaving and at the same time heard the kettle reach boiling point. That was clearly how Liz felt - close to boiling over, she thought, and that was a dangerous place for a wife to be.
Within a couple of hours of leaving the Rectory, Liz drove into Culworth to meet Neville for a drink. It was something she’d rarely done before but somehow she thought that doing the unexpected might revive something. Might shock him into looking at her properly, instead of just checking if she reached his standards of what was appropriate for a leading accountant’s wife. Why he imagined he should be
a leading accountant she couldn’t imagine; after all, Culworth was a minor country town, not in any way the level of a leading accountant in the City of London. Sad really, she thought.
Having parked her car, she marched along the High Street and into the glossy offices of Neville G. H. Neal and Company Chartered Accountants.
‘Good evening, Penny,’ she said to the girl on reception. ‘Mr Neal available?’
‘May I ask who’s enquiring?’
Liz, in her present mood, was determined not to tolerate this rudeness. ‘Well, Penny, it’s his wife, Liz Neal. You and I have met on several occasions. We talked for quite some time at Christmas at the staff party, remember, and we met by chance in the Abbey coffee shop one Saturday morning not long ago, and we talked when I collected Mr Neal after he’d had that horrific time at the dentist and didn’t feel able to drive himself home.’
‘Oh! Yes, of course. Sorry.’ She didn’t bother to check the diary, however, just said offhandedly, ‘He’s busy.’
‘With a client?’
‘No, but he’s too busy to see anyone.’
‘He’ll see me.’
Penny got to her feet in haste. ‘It’s more than my life’s worth if I let . . .’ But Liz was already heading for Neville’s office. She tapped lightly on his door and went in without waiting for a reply. He was leaning back in his chair, his feet propped up on the edge of his desk reading a sheaf of papers. ‘I did say no . . . Liz! What on earth . . .?’ He sat up straight, putting his feet on the floor at the same time. ‘Is there something the matter?’
‘Has it come to such a desperate state of affairs that my coming to the office creates waves?’
‘No, no, it’s just that you don’t usually—’
‘Time I did something surprising then, Neville.’
His ice blue eyes widened, his narrow nose appeared more accusative than usual, and his voice was thin with a hint of a whine to it. ‘You’ve chosen a difficult time. I’ve got these figures to run through for tomorrow. What have you come for?’
‘To have a drink with you.’
‘Oh! I see. Why?’
‘I might even step right outside my box and suggest a meal out.’
‘A meal out! Well, if you wait till I’ve finished—’
‘No, Neville, I won’t wait. I won’t. This time you’re putting me first. Put those papers in your briefcase now - you can read them when we get home.’
Neville hesitated. This really wasn’t on. He checked the solid silver clock on his desk. It was ten minutes before the office would close and he was never seen leaving so early. Bad example, he always thought for the owner to be witnessed leaving before time. Begrudgingly he muttered, ‘Let’s wait till half past then. I never leave early.’
Liz flung her arms wide. ‘Oh, my God! The world’s come to an end!’ She went round his desk, reached a hand out and snatched the papers he held, then stuffed them into the briefcase standing at the side of his chair.
‘There we are, that wasn’t difficult. Your spectacles, let’s have them.’ She pulled them from his face before he had a chance to do it for himself, forced open his case, put them in and snapped it shut, almost trapping her fingers. ‘Now, off we go. I quite fancy that new bar and restaurant up the Headrow.’
Neville watched her set off for the door with his briefcase and didn’t know what to do. No glasses, no figures - there was no point in staying on. Furious anger welled up inside him. He’d been press-ganged, commandeered, taken prisoner almost and, most importantly, he’d lost control of his life. He set great store by his strong control.
Liz called out, ‘I’ve kidnapped your boss, Penny. Goodnight. Make sure everything’s locked up when you go.’
Neville followed her, his face unfathomable, his eyes unwilling to meet Penny’s. Instead they slid away from her and focused on Liz, whom at that moment he hated more than anything in the whole world for putting him in this intolerable position.
Once they were outside he said through gritted teeth, ‘Give me my briefcase.’
‘No.’ Liz tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow and steered him up towards the Headrow.
This was the modern bit of the Culworth shopping area, a road unfamiliar to Neville because he still shopped where he’d always shopped - in the traditional old part. Not only was he furious he was also uncomfortable, because he didn’t recognize where he was.
‘I won’t go another step. I’m not moving, Liz.’
‘If you want to look a fool being dragged along by your wife then be my guest.’
Making an exhibition of himself didn’t fit with being an important figure in the community, so he followed Liz. The area was full of bars and just busy enough to make it feel full of buzz. When they sat down at a table in a spanking new bar they were handed a vast menu with all the drinks listed plus the food for later.
‘Now,’ said Liz, smiling sweetly, ‘isn’t this pleasant?’
Neville, leaning towards her, snarled, ‘Have you bloody taken leave of your senses? You’re making me look a fool.’
She ignored him. ‘A spritzer. What would you like? A whiskey as usual?’
‘Do you listen to a thing I say?’