The delightfully warm and witty new novel on risking everything for a second chance at love, for fans of Kathryn Hughes, The Letter.
Nancy de Freitas is the glue that holds her family together. Caught between her ageing, ailing mother Frances, and her struggling daughter Louise, frequent user of Nancy's babysitting services, it seems Nancy's fate is to quietly go on shouldering the burden of responsibility for all four generations. Her divorce four years ago put to rest to any thoughts of a partner to share her later years with. Now it looks like her family is all she has.
Then she meets Jim. Smoker, drinker, unsuccessful country singer and wearer of cowboy boots, he should be completely unsuited to the very together Nancy. And yet, there is a real spark.
But Nancy's family don't trust Jim one bit. They're convinced he'll break her heart, maybe run off with her money - he certainly distracts her from her family responsibilities.
Can she be brave enough to follow her heart? Or will she remain glued to her family's side and walk away from one last chance for love?
Nancy was in the kitchen preparing supper, listening to The Archers on the radio, drizzling olive oil over some summer vegetables for roasting, when her husband, Christopher, walked in and told her he was leaving. The July evening was breezy and cool, but the doors to the garden were open, the tortoiseshell cat from next door prowling around the tubs on the flagstone patio, rubbing his body luxuriously along the smooth earthenware sides of a pot of lavender.
Christopher stood across the room, the island worktop between them. He was dressed in jeans and his navy sweater, the high zip-neck brushing his chin, although the zip was partially undone. Thin, small and tidy, tanned from his endless walks in the Suffolk wetlands, his gray hair short, almost monk-like, he seemed determined, almost fierce, as he clutched his brown leather holdall in his left hand.
“Where are you going?” Nancy asked, holding up her oily hands, like a surgeon ready to operate, as she paused in her task of tossing the onions, zucchinis, peppers and baby tomatoes. “It’s nearly supper time.” She reached across to turn the radio off, using her elbow to press the green knob: Christopher hated The Archers.
“I’m going to see Tatjana.”
Tatjana was the newest member of the Downland Singers, a small madrigal group Christopher had set up nearly thirty years ago. From Latvia, she had auditioned when Gillian Perry—Christopher’s protégée—had left because of her husband’s cancer. Christopher had been very enthusiastic about her, said she had an extraordinarily pure soprano voice. Which obviously—as Nancy was about to discover—was not her only asset.
Not answering her question, her husband said, “I won’t be back tonight.”
Nancy frowned, not getting it.
“I won’t be back,” he repeated.
“Won’t be back? Why not?”
“I’m staying with Tatjana, Nancy.”
And when Nancy, still baffled, continued to look blank, he added, by way of explanation, “We’re in love.”
She stared at him. From a man of sixty-nine, the words sounded made up, fatuous. Genuinely unable to take them in, she lowered her hands and reached for the kitchen roll, wiping the oil from each of her fingers one by one. “Well,” she said, “if that’s the case, you’d better get off, then.” Her gaze was fixed on his face and she saw his shock, almost bewilderment, at her reply; shock that must mirror her own.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking away.
And she thought that he probably was, in his own way. Not a man to emote, nor someone who seemed to care much about anything in life except his music, Christopher de Freitas nonetheless considered himself to be a decent person. And a brilliant musician—although not all would agree. An Early Music specialist, he had studied classical guitar at the Royal College, then the lute. His madrigal singers were internationally famous among Early Music enthusiasts.
Nancy had met him when he came to the Royal Northern College of Music—where she was studying piano—to give a lute master class. Not that she was interested in the instrument as such, but her fellow student, Oliver, was, and she was interested in Oliver. But he was quickly forgotten as Nancy became mesmerized by Christopher’s penetratingly blue eyes—which lighted frequently on her as if he had singled her out for special attention—his mastery of the instrument, his fluent exposition of Renaissance music and madrigal forms. By the end of the two hours, she was hypnotized. Afterward she had gone up to thank him.
He had given her his card. “If you’re ever in London, look me up. I have a concert at the Cadogan Hall in June. I can get you tickets, if you like?” It was posed as a question, although she felt he assumed she would “like.” His confidence was absolute.
“You could have told me earlier,” she said now, as if she were speaking from outside her body, looking down on the middle-aged pair in their tidy, middle-class kitchen. No shouting, no drama, all perfectly polite, as she added, “I wouldn’t have bothered with supper.” Her body was screwed so tight, she seemed capable only of such inanities as she waited for him to go.
“Right . . .” her husband muttered, still hovering, as if he were reluctant to leave, whereas the exact opposite must be the case, Nancy thought. He must be desperate to get this scene over with, to escape his intolerable guilt. Desperate to lie with relief against Tatjana’s ample bosom.
That was the last word spoken in their thirty-four-year marriage.
Better than a note on the kitchen table? Nancy wondered, after three-quarters of a bottle of Rioja on an empty stomach, gazing at the vegetables still sitting forlornly on the work-top—like her, rejected, deemed not fit for purpose. Numb with shock, she didn’t cry. And after the whole bottle of wine and a couple of large shots of Christopher’s Glenfiddich, she realized through the drunken haze that she’d known for some time, like a painful bruise she couldn’t touch, what was going on between her husband and Tatjana Liepa.
Four years later
What the hell are you supposed to wear for a line-dancing evening in a Brighton pub? Nancy asked herself, as she flicked through the rail of clothes in her cupboard, vainly searching for an outfit for her friend Lindy’s sixtieth. Lindy had not been helpful.
“Oh, doesn’t matter, wear jeans and boots or something,” she’d said airily. But Nancy’s jeans were M & S jeggings—not even distant cousins to authentic Levi’s—her black boots better suited to a day’s work in a building society office than stomping the boards to a Dolly Parton song.
All the clothes that used to fill her wardrobe when she was still Mrs. Christopher de Freitas—sleek dresses and velvet jackets, black evening trousers, silk tops and beaded handbags—were long gone to the charity shop in Aldeburgh, and she didn’t miss them one bit.
I’ll look like someone who’s wandered in from one of Mother’s bridge evenings, she thought, ripping off a frumpy light-blue cotton shirt she’d tried on because it was sort of denim-colored. In fact, I dress more like my mother with every passing day. Which thought had her slamming her wardrobe shut and running downstairs, out of her cottage, across the gravel to the bigger house.
“Hiya.” Ross, her son-in-law, grinned as Nancy came into the kitchen, a curved, two-handled blade poised in his hands, the chopping board in front of him covered with a mound of bright green herbs. Beside him was a bowl of uncooked gray prawns, another of broccoli stems, a smaller one with chopped garlic, a bottle of soy sauce and a shiny red chili. Nancy smiled back, wondering if she ever saw him when he wasn’t attached to a knife and surrounded by ingredients. He had his own restaurant, the Lime Kiln, three miles away, and even when he wasn’t there—like today, Sunday—he still did nothing but cook every moment he was awake.
“How’s it going?” he asked, turning to skim the sharp metal blade back and forth at high speed across the herbs. Overweight, broad-shouldered and around six feet in height, he had shaved the last vestiges of his hair, leaving a gleaming dome, which seemed to heighten the beauty of his huge brown dark-lashed eyes, the fullness of his mouth and his strong, jutting chin. Pale from too much time indoors, if he wasn’t handsome he was charismatic, with a loud voice and a ready smile. Nancy liked him a lot.
“Not well,” she said, shifting Bob, the cat—female, but her granddaughters had insisted on the name—and flinging herself down on the faded green sofa, strewn with a bright and diverse set of cushions. “Is Louise upstairs? I need to find an outfit . . . I’m going line dancing.”
Ross’s eyes widened and he guffawed. “Line dancing? You’re kidding me. Wouldn’t have thought that was your thing, Nancy.”
“It isn’t, but it’s Lindy’s sixtieth birthday party. What can I do?” In fact it wasn’t the dancing that bothered Nancy—she loved dancing on the rare occasions when she got the chance. It was the party itself, any party, that wasn’t Nancy’s “thing.” Unlike her ex-husband, who seemed able to enter a room full of complete strangers and instantly bond with them, Nancy found socializing like pulling teeth, the low-grade panic never quite going away. And she’d barely been out in the years since the split. At first after Christopher’s defection she’d retreated, shut the doors of their white-painted Suffolk farmhouse on her friends and made endless excuses, which became increasingly implausible, to avoid their company, until they’d given up trying. Then, when she’d moved to the cottage just north of Brighton, three years ago now, teaming up with Louise and Ross, she had known no one with whom to party.
Before Ross had time to answer her, there was a shriek from the TV room. Hope, nine, and Jazzy, six, came barreling into the kitchen with shrieks of “Nana, Nana!” and threw themselves into her arms.
Clutching a large glass of Pinot, pressed upon her by Ross, some salted almonds inside her, Nancy plunked herself down on her daughter and son-in-law’s bed. Hope was already eagerly rummaging in her mother’s drawers and cupboards.
“Look, Nana,” she exclaimed, her large brown eyes—inherited from her father—alive with the drama as she reached on tiptoe and yanked down a shimmery gold knitted bolero jacket that would have been better suited, in Nancy’s opinion, to one of Hope’s Barbies than either her or Louise. “This is perfect for a party.”
“Umm . . . Maybe a bit . . . shiny?”
Louise chuckled at her mother’s expression. “Impulse buy,” she said, tossing a fringed leather jacket in butter-colored suede at her. “Perfect, no?” She turned to rummage along the rail again. “I’ve got some denim dungarees here somewhere . . . but maybe that’s a bit more farmhand than cowboy.”
Jazzy pulled her thumb out of her mouth. “Nana can’t wear dungarees to a party,” she said, her tone shocked. She was sitting beside her on the bed, watching operations carefully with her round blue eyes.
“What about these?” Louise, nodding agreement, brandished a pair of jeans. “These are better. They should fit and they’re real Levi’s.”
Her daughter took after Christopher in appearance: small-boned, slim, with well-defined, almost sharp features. She was shorter than her mother by about two inches, very like her father, with his deep-blue eyes. Only Nancy’s thick, previously dark-brown hair seemed to have survived the genetic inheritance, and Louise didn’t make the most of it, pulling it back in a short, severe ponytail. But she had a sort of gamine quality that Nancy knew men found attractive, and a charming smile that instantly softened her darting, nervy expression.
“Go on, try them on,” Louise was urging.
“Now? Maybe I’ll take them home . . .” Nancy was embarrassed in front of the girls, who were gazing disapprovingly at their mother’s choice of garments.
“No, come on. I want to see what you look like. Shoo, girls, let Nana change. I’ll call you when she’s ready.”
Once the girls had gone—she could hear them giggling outside the door—Nancy undressed to her T-shirt and knickers and pulled on the jeans and jacket. The jeans were a bit short and a bit tight around her post-menopausal midriff, but the jacket fitted perfectly. She eyed herself in the long mirror on the bedroom wall, Bob rubbing against her legs as she stood there.
“See? You look brilliant.” Her daughter grinned at her from the other side of the bed. “Very C and W.”
“C and W?”
“Country and western, Mum. Get with the program!”
“Ha! Of course.” She twisted sideways in the mirror, twitching her fringe on her forehead, her pure silver-white hair falling in a thick bob to just past her chin, accentuating her strong cheekbones and wide gray eyes. For a second she had a tantalizing glimpse of her younger self as she twirled in her daughter’s clothes. “I had a panic earlier that I was beginning to dress like Mum.”
Louise laughed. “Could be worse. Granny always looks incredible.”
“Yes, but she’s eighty-four! I have the exact same M & S jeggings as she does.”
“You and half the country.”
Nancy sighed. “I think I panicked because the other day she pointed out that I’m the same age as she was when Daddy died. And I thought she seemed so old at the time.”
“You’re not old, Mum. Sixty is the new forty,” Louise said briskly, shutting down Nancy’s worries as she always did. Her daughter spent a lot of time in a state of anxiety herself, and perhaps couldn’t cope with it in Nancy too. Nancy found it disconcerting sometimes, but perhaps it was better not to dwell on things she couldn’t change. It was just the creeping fear, new to her, that the rest of her life was already mapped out, that she would follow her mother’s example of safe, female company—notwithstanding Dennis, a septuagenarian fancy-man her mother’s friend had recently taken up with—filling the time left with bridge and Noël Coward, fancy cakes, cruises and Marks & Spencer, en route to the grave. Because although Frances had an enviable life for someone of her age, she seemed permanently discontented, disappointed at the way things had turned out.
“Found them!” Louise, who had been scrambling in the bottom of her cupboard, waved aloft a pair of ankle boots with small heels and pointed toes in light-brown suede, metal studs decorating the zip line. “These are almost cowboy.” She handed them to her mother. “They don’t quite match the jacket, but no one will notice that.”
“Will they fit?”
“Have a go. I’ve worn them a lot so they’re quite stretched.” She watched Nancy struggle into the boots. “Fantastic. Come in, girls, come and look at Nana.” She eyed her up and down. “You’re so classy, so elegant, Mum. You look good enough for any line-dancing party.”
New York • London
© 2016 by Hilary Boyd
First published in the United States by Quercus in 2017.
About the Author
Hilary Boyd trained as a nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital, then as a marriage guidance counselor. After a degree in English Literature at London University in her thirties, she moved into health journalism, writing a Mind, Body, Spirit column for the Daily Express. She published six non-fiction books on health-related subjects before turning to fiction and writing a string of bestsellers, starting with Thursdays in the Park.
Hilary is married to film director/producer Don Boyd.