It was several days since he’d been, and he’d never stayed away for this long before. She knew he was angry with her, but perhaps - just perhaps - she could make things right when he came. Maybe she had been too hasty, or maybe she had expected too much.
Seeing nothing, she pushed aside the vague sense of relief. She knew the feeling would soon be replaced by a creeping dread. The room was cold and she realised she was shivering in her flimsy clothes. She took a tiny sip of water, and pushed herself under the thin bed covers, dragging them around her to cut out the icy draughts, and burying her head beneath them to let the warm air of her breath bring a little comfort to her trembling body.
The fire crackled in the hearth, where Imogen had finally put a match to the firelighters. The logs had caught and were burning well. It made a very dreary room only slightly more cheerful.
Laura glanced across at Imogen who was busying herself searching through Hugo’s bewildering collection of brandy bottles. The minute the police had gone, the argument had begun. Brief, but ferocious, it had left Laura exhausted. She had run the full gamut of emotions, and finally had abruptly ended the row by racing to the downstairs bathroom to be sick. Intense stress often had this effect on her. Now she lay on her side on the sofa, her head on a pile of cushions, her arms around her stomach - more to provide a sense of comfort than to ease the cramping. When she spoke her words were difficult, but not impossible, to decipher. No longer capable of shouting, she was still furious with Imogen.
‘You shouldn’t have come, Imogen. It was a stupid, stupid decision. You just didn’t think, did you?’
‘You’ve already made your feelings quite clear, thank you. I believe I’ve got the message.’
‘You should be on your way to Canada by now. And why on earth did you have to tell them that you’re my sister-in-law?’
Imogen seemed completely unmoved by Laura’s anguish, and answered in a brisk, no nonsense voice.
, until it all went pear shaped. I guess Will isn’t going to like me being here either, but that’s his problem. Look Laura, what was I supposed to do? As soon as I heard the announcement that Hugo was dead, I
to come. And after everything that you’ve asked me to do for you, I actually thought that you might need some support. Silly me.’
Gone was the gentle, sweet conciliatory tone that had been used to impress the police. Laura sighed.
‘Yes, Imogen, I know what I asked, and it was a
‘A big ask? Is that what you call it? I would say that a ‘big ask’ is asking to borrow a brand new Armani jacket, or asking for my last two thousand pounds. Not, of course, that you would ever need either of those things. But your ‘big ask’ was way off the Richter scale, lady, and you know it.’
‘I explained all that to you. You said you understood.’
‘But now it’s different, isn’t it.’
Imogen let out a huge breath, as if releasing a mountain of pent up tension.
‘The next few days - possibly weeks - are going to be horrendous. You are going to need a lot of support. Who
what is going to crawl out of the woodwork, and the police are inevitably going to want to understand what happened to you, and why you ended up in that madhouse.’
Laura swung herself round into a sitting position. Not even Imogen was allowed to get away with a comment like that.
‘You have a charming way with words, as always, Imo. Both you and I know quite well why I was there, but whatever the reason it doesn’t make me feel any better about it.’
The fight seemed to drain out of Imogen, and Laura could read regret in her eyes. That was the trouble with Imogen. She often spoke first, thought later. She’d always been the same.
Imogen placed an extremely large Cognac that Laura didn’t want on the table next to the sofa, and sat down beside her.
‘I’m sorry. That was tactless of me. But what are you going to tell the police? I’m here to give you the strength to go on. There are going to be moments when you really won’t know what to do. You’re going to have to deal with Alexa, then there’s the will, the funeral, no end of things to do. You’ll need somebody to talk to, and I’m the only person who understands.’
Laura wasn’t quite ready to let Imogen off the hook yet.
‘Ah, but there’s the rub, Imo. You
you understand, but you actually don’t have the faintest clue.’
They were hurting each other, and it was a pointless exercise. The damage was done, and sticking the knife in Imogen wasn’t going to help or change a thing. Perhaps the Cognac wasn’t such a bad idea. She took a mouthful and shuddered. She hated its cloying sweetness.
‘Look, I don’t want us to keep fighting. God knows my emotions are on enough of a roller coaster as it is. I do understand why you came, even though it was a crap idea. It was irresponsible and impulsive. And the police are definitely going to want to know why I was so horrified when you walked through the door.’
‘Then tell them the truth! Hugo hated me, your brother loathes me, I have been banned from this God-awful house for years - and your husband forbade you to speak to me ever again. And you were my best friend in the world. The truth is hideous enough without you trying to fabricate some unrealistic story.’
Laura couldn’t help but agree. From the age of five right up until the first year of her marriage, she and Imo had been as close as any two friends could be. Imogen’s parents had moved from Canada into the house next door to Laura, and she could clearly remember the day they’d met. It had been one of the bad days in the Kennedy household, and Laura had crawled into her private den in the midst of an area of dense shrubbery at the bottom of their long garden, far enough away from the house so that she couldn’t hear the argument. She’d never heard a real live North American accent until she heard Imogen’s first words. ‘I saw you from my bedroom window, and thought you looked like you could use some chocolate. Can I come in?’ Laura must have said yes, because this smiley kid in denim dungarees came scuttling into the den on hands and knees and gave Laura a quick hug and a rather dirty packet of chocolate buttons. ‘You’d better tell me why you’re crying. ‘Cos I’m staying till you do.’
And that set the pattern of their relationship. Imogen had discovered a gap in the hedge between their houses and said it could be their secret. Any time she wanted, Laura could wriggle through to come and play with her and she would do the same. From that day forward they had never been out of each other’s houses. Laura believed that she knew everything about Imogen and vice versa. But she was wrong.
Imogen had never told Laura that from her early teens she was absolutely besotted with Will Kennedy, Laura’s older brother. And when her feelings were reciprocated, Laura had felt side-lined. It took her a while to forgive Imogen for harbouring such a secret, but their happiness was infectious. Her best friend and her brother were married when Imogen was just twenty years old, and they had remained just as smitten with each other until one dreadful night here in this very house.
Now somebody was going to have to tell Will and her mother about Hugo. She hated the fact that Will had chosen to work in Africa, but thankfully her mother was on her way there for a visit. She should have arrived by now. God knows, she was never Hugo’s greatest fan, but Laura could really do without hearing her mother’s views on her choice of husband at this precise moment.
‘I need to tell Will, Imogen. And Mum. Otherwise they’re going to just see it on the news, and that wouldn’t be great. I’m not sure if I have the energy to deal with my mother, so I’ll tell Will and let him pass it on.’
Laura knew what Imogen’s response would be. She would never miss such a golden opportunity to speak to her ex-husband.
‘I’ll phone Will. Leave it with me. I’ll do it in a minute,’ Imogen said, a thoughtful expression on her face.
‘Oh, and can you check that the message light is on, Imo. And if it is…’
Imogen interrupted her. ‘Yes, I know what to do, Laura, don’t worry.’
‘And then there’s Alexa. I really need to do what I can to help her, poor kid. She’s only twelve - and a very young twelve at that. It’s going to hit her so hard. I can guarantee her mother will be totally useless. Alexa needs to be able to grieve for her father without getting Annabel’s version of what a shit he was. I know she’s his ex-wife and almost duty bound to loathe him, but surely she will just this once put her daughter’s feelings before her own?’
Aware that she was babbling, Laura glanced across at Imogen, who was looking at her in a strange, but determined way. Her next words confirmed that she had just been waiting for an appropriate pause in Laura’s ramblings to jump in.
‘Before you digressed somewhat, you said - and I quote - “You think you understand, but you actually don’t have the faintest clue.” I think you’d better explain that statement.’
Laura stood up from the sofa. Imogen was watching her too closely, and it made her uncomfortable. She walked over to the fireplace and crouched down to poke the embers. She didn’t have the energy to justify her statement to Imogen right now. But Imogen hadn’t finished.
‘I’m not a hypocrite, Laura, and I detested your husband with a vengeance. There’s more to this ‘not having the faintest clue’ than meets the eye, and I need to know what it is. I promise you, I won’t give up until you’ve told me. I’m not here as your enemy, Laura. I’m here as your friend.’
Having poked the fire to death, Laura played for time whilst she added more logs, arranging each one with unnecessary care. She knew that Imogen deserved an explanation. She had lied to her, or at least she had never told her the whole truth. But they had gone years without seeing or speaking to each other and too much had happened. Too much to explain in a single evening.
‘I’m honestly not in any fit state to tell you, Imo. I know nowadays we’re all encouraged to bare our souls at the drop of a hat, but I don’t entirely subscribe to that theory. When I was in the home I saw enough instances of people regurgitating the same problems over and over again, when it would have served them better to push them to the back of their minds and just get on with life. However, you do have a right to know. I will concede that.’
There was a long drawn-out silence. Laura was fighting an internal battle, and it was clear that Imogen wasn’t going to help. Finally, Laura made a decision, and not one she had been intending to make.
‘I wrote you some letters.’
‘What letters? I haven’t had a letter from you in years. What on earth are you talking about?’
‘I didn’t send them.’
Laura paused. She didn’t know if she could do this.
‘The first time I wrote to you was when you and Will started seeing each other, and I was sulking. I wrote to tell you how I felt - and then I read it. I was appalled at my selfishness and I tore the letter up. Since then, there have been times in my life when I’ve desperately wanted to know what you think, and times when I just wanted to clarify my own feelings and resolve any dilemmas, so I wrote you letters. Several of them. It all started when I first met Hugo. I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody about our relationship, so I wanted to capture every moment so that I could relive it with you when the time was right. I hated the fact that I couldn’t share it with you. But after that, the time never was right. Things moved on and when I re-read the first letter everything I’d written seemed so immature and childish. So as things changed, I wrote to you again. I fully intended to let you read everything - but gradually there were too many things that prevented that. And so it became something almost therapeutic. I felt as if I was talking to you, but I didn’t have to suffer the humiliation of seeing your reaction. It won’t make sense now, but it will when you read them.’
Laura took a deep breath.
‘Go, Imogen. Go and call Will. I’ll go and find the letters - they’re well hidden. I suppose you might as well start at the beginning - from the night I met Hugo. But we need to do this at my pace, Imo. I don’t know if I can let you read them all.’
There’s something I’m dying to tell you - but I
! It’s so frustrating. I understand why I can’t, but it’s difficult for me. You’re my best friend, and I want to share this with you. So I’m going to write it all down, and that way I won’t forget anything. Not one precious moment. You see I’ve had an amazing couple of weeks. I truly believe that in the last fourteen days, my life has changed forever.
I’ve met a man.
It all started with the awards’ night. The one I told you about. I’ve never been to an event in the Great Room of the Grosvenor House Hotel before, but it’s famous for all the best awards’ nights. And this time one of my programmes had been shortlisted (and I was a complete bag of nerves).
Simon - my boss - was waiting for me when I arrived, and we pushed our way through the throngs of people crammed into the small lobby, all laughing and smiling and looking wonderfully elegant. We made our way down to the mezzanine overlooking the Great Room where the Champagne reception was being held.
I have to say (somewhat immodestly) that I was really pleased with how I looked, which was a huge confidence boost, particularly as I was trembling with nerves. I’d splashed out on a gorgeous dress in aquamarine silk. It’s got tiny shoestring straps, and a plunged neckline, and it’s cut on the bias so that I look shapely rather than chubby - at least, that’s what I’d convinced myself! And of course, my hair helps. I love being a redhead! So all in all, it was one of those nights when I felt good about myself.
Looking into the Great Room from the reception area, the sight was breath-taking. Enormous chandeliers created a warm and welcoming light, and there was an endless sea of beautifully decorated circular tables each with its own candelabra, the soft yellow flames gently illuminating the white cloths, which shimmered like pools of gold below us. The stage had been set up with a stunning backdrop of silver and gold stars, but best of all was the long table that held all the crystal pyramid awards for the winners. Just looking at them made me shiver with excitement. It would be such an honour to win, and such a boost to my career.