Authors: Rebecca Shaw
‘They’re not a charity, Marcus. They’re in it to make money and they will have strong ideas on exactly how they will treat it. Don’t come home crying to me when they’ve turned you down. It’s happened before and it could happen again.’
Marcus paused to look at her over the rim of his cup. ‘You have so little faith in me. I praise you for everything you do, but when it’s my turn for the limelight you’re scathing and practical. I was right: you are envious of me. I’m doing what I said I would and no one is going to stop me. I shall need money for London so watch our bank account – we don’t want to go into overdraft. I’ll go get dressed. Is my best shirt washed and ironed?’
‘Yes.’ Alice almost added ‘and good riddance to you’, but she didn’t. She needed to retain a measure of self-respect, though why she did she didn’t know, when all her life was being slowly destroyed by people who she had supposed loved her, and there was nothing she could do about it.
While Marcus dressed she sat with her elbows on the kitchen table, hugging yet another mug of tea, wondering what Johnny was doing at this very minute. She pictured him in that beautiful house that had been Sir Ralph’s with its new decorations, its brand-new kitchen, the inglenook fireplace in the sitting room fully restored. It had needed doing after the fire. That fire was all so terrible, with Muriel burned to death and Ralph dying so quickly afterwards from a broken heart. They’d been so very happy together. So had she, but where was all that now?
Marcus came clattering down the stairs, his arrival in the hall impeded by his suitcase.
‘You’re going for a few days then?’
‘Of course. I can’t do it all in a day. There’ll be talks with marketing and publicity and editors. I’ve got to start as I mean to go on, up there in front, in charge.’
‘Perhaps that all comes later when the contract is signed. You forget they haven’t bought it yet; maybe a bit of appreciation might be a good idea.’
‘Alice! Where are you coming from? You haven’t the faintest idea how to go about getting a book published. You leave it all to me. I’m not having any book of mine ruined. You’ll see! Right, I’ve got my credit cards. Have you any cash, just till I get to a cash point?’
‘There’s a twenty-pound note in my purse.’
‘That’s not enough; you know the price of things in London.’
She rummaged through her purse again and said, ‘I have another fiver, that’s all. You’ve cleaned me out.’
‘That’ll have to do. Wish me luck.’ He stuffed the notes into his wallet.
‘Good luck. I hope it all goes well.’
‘I’ve just thought, Alice. I don’t know how long I shall be away. I can’t leave the car in Culworth railway station for days. Give me a lift.’
‘I’m not dressed. You’ll have to wait – won’t be long.’
Almost steaming with impatience Marcus said roughly, ‘Just pop your coat on over your pyjamas. You’re not getting out of the car; no one will notice.’
Desperate to get him out of the house, she did as he said – her coat on, in the front passenger seat. They were off, with Marcus driving like a madman. How they reached Culworth Station without having a serious accident Alice didn’t know. She sat white-faced, gripping her seat as he overtook on bends and ignored speed limits: a journey that took half an hour on a quiet day took them twenty minutes in the early-morning traffic. Marcus dragged his case from the boot, waved a careless ‘goodbye’ and disappeared into the ticket office.
Alice sighed with relief. She was glad to see him go. This wild confidence which had overtaken him didn’t bode well. He could very well come home with nothing and the whole process would start again. Money, of the kind Johnny had, interested her not at all, though she could see the advantages of it when she compared Marcus and Johnny. Marcus had no choices; Johnny had them all. If he wrote a book he could afford to publish it himself without thinking twice about it.
Oh! Johnny! Where did we go wrong? She shuffled her legs around the gear lever to get into the driving seat and, as though she had called him up just by thinking of him, she saw him in the rear-view mirror. Getting out of a taxi right there behind her. The driver hefted two huge suitcases out, Johnny paid him and strode towards the station platforms, his gait barely affected by the weight of the cases. Two big heavy suitcases! That must mean he was going wherever he was going for a long time. Perhaps for ever. Alice felt as though she’d been winded by a heavy blow aimed right in her solar plexus. She tried sucking air into her lungs but that didn’t work, so she sat crippled by searing pain. God help us! Now what? The car windows were closed but she tried to shout ‘Johnny!’ at the top of her voice. She silently moaned,
Please, please, Johnny, don’t go
Loud tooting alerted her; she was in the way. The car refused to start up, her tears blinded her, both legs refused to do as she wanted. In fact no part of her worked properly, not just her legs. Finally the engine fired and she stole slowly away, ravaged by grief.
Alice drove all the way home like a somnambulist, holding up the traffic and not caring that she did.
The news of Johnny’s abrupt departure had spread through Turnham Malpas by teatime that day. The news of Marcus’s departure took a while longer, but the significance of both their exits from the village was minutely examined in the Royal Oak.
a publisher has offered to buy his book, but with him never going anywhere how can he write books anyone would want to buy?’
‘How much will he get for a book, do you think?’
Willie shook his head. ‘No idea. Could be millions; could be peanuts.’
‘The rector saw him setting off when he was coming back from his run, didn’t speak because Marcus drove out of the village so fast he couldn’t have caught ’em if he’d had wings,’ said Dottie. ‘She was with him, he said, so she must have gone to bring the car back.’
‘If he gets millions for it, I’ll eat my hat,’ Don ventured. ‘Can’t think how a man like him would write anything worth anything. He has one subject of conversation and that’s . . . him. If you talk to ’im it’s all about ’im and ’is writing, nothing else. A whole book about Marcus March! Huh!’
Sylvia said, ‘He might surprise us all. Who knows what goes on in his head? I feel sorry for Alice – lovely talent she’s got; she could go far but she’s the one with the money to earn, slogging away teaching when she should be flying high singing in important places.’
Maggie hunched herself over the table so they could hear her more easily and whispered, ‘I reckon he’s a bully.’
‘No! Do you think so, really?’ they all said in unison.
‘Sometimes in the summer I go out my bottom garden gate and feed the geese at night before they go to sleep, and one time, May or June time it was when the nights are light, I heard him having a right go at her. Shouting and carrying on. I’m not saying he hits her – how could anyone, her being such a lovely girl, well . . . woman. I couldn’t hear her saying a word, even though she has that powerful voice, her being a singer like she is. I reckon he’s on the nasty side.’
‘He’s full of himself, that’s for certain, but he’s so boring! Never going anywhere, never talking to anyone, crouched over his blessed computer. Bet she’s glad he’s gone,’ Sylvia said.
Dottie, more interested in the glorious Johnny than Marcus March, suggested that Alice could be a lot more upset about Johnny going. ‘They could have had a great time while the hopeful novelist’s in London seeing his publisher. I wonder what’s made Johnny go, all of a sudden. Maybe he’s got bored with living in a village. I mean, just think of Brazil and all that money he has with them hotels!’
‘I thought they made a lovely couple, both of ’em good looking and him with his money. Alice could really do the big time with her singing.’ This was Maggie having her say, filled with envy at the prospect of beautiful dresses and all that applause, which reminded her of choir practice. ‘Hell! What’s the time? Sylvia! look at the time; we’re going to be late!’
‘It’s not choir tonight. Today’s Friday!’ protested Dottie.
Sylvia leaped to her feet. ‘Yes, it is, it’s the extra, extra practice because of the competition. Where’s my music? Here it is. See you all later. Come on, Dottie, hurry up.’
They rushed into the church hall to find, instead of Alice, Gilbert standing ready to begin.
The two of them shuffled into their places, apologising to Gilbert with brief nods of their heads.
‘Good evening, ladies. I’m standing in for Alice tonight; she has a touch of flu. She’s told me all she wants me to go through so we’ll press on. There’s the lovely Mia, with hands poised to play the first of Alice’s voice exercises. Shall we begin? I hope you don’t mind having to put up with me.’
Having to put up with him? They most certainly could. It was difficult to put into words what it was about Gilbert that was so attractive, but attractive he most certainly was. Everyone in the choir was bewitched by him. They knew he was married to Louise and that they had five lovely children, that he never ever flirted with any of them because he had no interest in any women other than his wife, but still they were intrigued by him; he wore the same clothes summer and winter, shirt unbuttoned almost to the waist, sleeves rolled up, cotton trousers, heavy sandals on bare feet, and it didn’t matter if it was freezing – he had never been seen wearing a coat or sweater. This gave him a very positive aura of masculinity, besides which he had dark, deep-set eyes, a year-round tan, and a tumble of curly hair that, though clean, appeared never to have known the strictures of a hairbrush. As for his voice . . . there weren’t words to adequately describe the deeply pleasing timbre of it, both speaking and singing, which made their knees turn to jelly. So, yes, they sang their hearts out . . . just for Gilbert.
‘Now we’ve warmed up we’ll have a go at singing “Amazing Grace”. Overdone and over-sung but nevertheless that’s what’s on the agenda for the competition and far be it from me to ignore it. Passion, ladies, and a tinge of deep sadness mixed with triumph. Who sings the solo voice?’
‘Come out to the front, Laura.’
‘Out here right by me, please.’
So Laura went out to the front, as one did if that was what Gilbert wanted.
‘I think, Mia, you might not have accompanied this with a slightly syncopated rhythm, but that’s how I want it. This song is always drawled along and that heightens the sugariness with which it is already overloaded. We want hope, not sugar. So we shall sharpen the pace and add a hint of syncopation. Thanks.’
Gilbert lifted the baton and they were away. After three false starts they got going with it and finished triumphantly with Laura’s solo voice putting the final exquisite touch to it.
‘Excellent! Excellent! Laura, that was magnificent. You’re so good, all of you. Try for a little less of the vibrato, if you please though. I like the voice to be pure.’ He bunched his fingers and touched his mouth like a Frenchman would, and they all felt their hearts beat a little faster. ‘Mia! We’ll have those two last lines again.’
Eventually Laura from Penny Fawcett sang the lines five more times and then got it absolutely right as far as Gilbert was concerned. ‘Excellent, very moving but without sentimentality; just how I wanted it. On we go. I think you’ll have a head start singing it this way at the competition. I’m seeing Alice at the end of rehearsal so I’ll tell her what we’ve planned.’
The choir members were exhausted by the time the rehearsal finished, his more vigorous approach making it harder than with Alice. While many went back to the Royal Oak Gilbert did as he said he would and went to report to Alice.
He knocked on her front door and walked in. ‘Alice!’
‘In the kitchen!’
‘I said you had a touch of flu. OK?’
‘It was good. You’ve trained them well. They are very keen.’
‘Laura – all right was she?’
‘Excellent.’ He went on to outline the songs they had covered, then Gilbert said, ‘I’m ready for a cup of tea. I’ll make it, shall I?’
‘Then you can tell me why you asked me to say you had a touch of flu, which you very obviously haven’t.’
‘There’s nothing to tell.’
‘The village grapevine tells me Marcus has had a communication from a publisher. Surely that’s good news?’
‘Yes, he has, but this has happened before and when they saw the whole manuscript they turned it down. He’s absolutely confident that they mean it this time, but I’m more cautious.’
‘They’ve asked him to go see them; that must mean something, surely?’
Alice shook her head. ‘They asked to see the rest of the manuscript and talked about a trilogy, but they didn’t say to go to see them. He’s determined that he should so he can control things from the word go.’
‘I don’t think it works like that . . .’
‘Exactly. I’ve said that myself but he won’t listen.’
‘That’s it then; you’re upset because you’re on your own.’ He raised a disbelieving eyebrow and she found him difficult to resist. ‘Well? Don’t tell me if you really don’t want to, but we all know about . . . Johnny.’
‘He’s gone too, loaded with two big suitcases.’