Bluethroat Morningby Jacqui Lofthouse
A literary mystery that explores the troubled relationship between women and their writing.
Alison Bliss, world-famous model and author of critically acclaimed Sweet Susan, walks into the sea on a "bluethroat morning". She becomes a greater icon in death than in life and the Norfolk village of Glaven, where she spent her final days, is soon a place of/i>… See more details below
A literary mystery that explores the troubled relationship between women and their writing.
Alison Bliss, world-famous model and author of critically acclaimed Sweet Susan, walks into the sea on a "bluethroat morning". She becomes a greater icon in death than in life and the Norfolk village of Glaven, where she spent her final days, is soon a place of pilgrimage.
Six years later, her husband Harry, a schoolteacher, is still haunted by her suicide and faithful to her memory-until he meets nineteen-year-old Helen. The two begin an intense affair which is secretly darkened by the past. Harry is attracted by Helen's uncanny resemblance to Arabella-his great-grandfather's second wife-on whom Alison was basing her new book. Little was known about Arabella, except that she had drowned herself in the sea by Glaven. . . where Alison had traveled, only to mysteriously follow in her tragic footsteps.
Propelled by their intense affair, Harry returns with Helen to the scene of his wife's death, determined to finally make his peace. There they meet ninety-year-old Erne Hingham who holds the key to both Arabella and Alison's stories. With the media circling, Harry discovers a story that has been generations in the making and in whose center may lie the reason for Alison's suicide. As he pieces together the past and confronts his own pain, Harry discovers that he must relive history to truly understand it.
- Bloomsbury USA
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1st U.S. Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.64(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.49(d)
Read an Excerpt
`Come on, Harry. When was the last time you got yourself laid?'
`None of your damn business.'
`You're a handsome man. It's a waste.'
`I'm fine. I do have a social life. Give it a rest, won't you?'
It was nearing the end of the summer term. We were drinking at the White Swan, a quiet pub, for the City, tucked away in a side street, the perfect antidote to a day at the school. We sat outside on wooden benches, glad to be in the shade on such an evening, sheltered from the sun by the tall buildings that surrounded us. The air was thick and smoggy but there was no traffic here, and though, as usual, we were skirting around the issues that really mattered, it was always good to have a beer with Richard, especially now, when everything seemed so precarious, when I was putting off decisions for as long as I could.
`I mean it's no life, is it?' he said. `All this fending for yourself.'
`I have friends. Really. I'm quite all right. Anyway why the sudden concern?'
`Friends aren't the same thing. You need a woman. Alison well, she wouldn't have wanted you to pine.'
`It didn't look that way to me.'
He paused. We didn't normally talk about Alison. Perhaps he wished he'd kept quiet.
`All right. But you shouldn't still be suffering. It's over six years. Don't you think you should give yourself a break?'
I hardly knew what to reply. Richard and I had been pals for years, but thoughI'd always sensed he understood me, we seldom talked intimately and this frankness surprised me. I suppose he must have known that things were about to change because he said things that had clearly been on his mind for some time.
I was fifty-eight years old, but I'd decided, at last, to take early retirement from King Edward's. I felt it was time to get away. I had vague ideas about travelling but, as yet, nothing was planned. The future was a blank.
I emptied my glass. Normally Richard would be getting home now, back to Richmond. Frances, his wife, would be expecting him. But that night he offered me another and I wasn't about to refuse.
When he returned from the bar, he got straight to the point.
`There's somebody you should meet. A friend of Frances's. Why don't you come for dinner?'
I grimaced. This wasn't like him.
`Come off it, Richard.'
Since Alison, I hadn't met a single woman who moved me. The last thing I wanted was for someone else to do the choosing. And besides, I didn't want this. Richard continued regardless. The woman was called Madeleine. She was devastatingly attractive, he said, and very bright. A widow.
`You are kidding?'
`A young widow. Early forties. Used to be married to a business analyst, so you'll be a breath of fresh air. She's a freelance journalist,' he said, `does a lot of work for Vogue. She's perfect for you. Well read. Very classy.'
`No objections. You'll adore her.'
I knew that he meant no harm. Yet his words unsettled me. It was not something that I could rationalise but, given my hatred of the press, his suggestion that I meet a journalist was naïve and hardly tactful. Doubtless this woman was only in it for the story.
`I can't meet a journalist. Especially not a fashion journalist.'
`Paranoia, Harry. You haven't met the woman. Anyway, she doesn't write about fashion. Trust me, won't you?'
`I can't do it. I'm sorry. Anyway she doesn't sound my type.'
`Rubbish.' Then he softened. `Come on. She's dying to meet you. Nervous as hell, actually. Think of your reputation.'
`Why so keen?'
`Women are intrigued by you. You know that.'
`They're only interested because of Alison.'
`What does it matter?'
`I'm not trading on Alison's reputation to get myself laid.'
He smiled wearily.
`Look the thing is, Maddy's a nice woman. And it would be good to have you over.'
In the end, I let myself be persuaded, though I knew it was a mistake. Did I guess, even then, that this dinner should be avoided at all costs? I agreed because it seemed important to Richard. In all the years that I'd known him, I'd never visited his home. This was a gesture of friendship; his way of saying he didn't want us to grow apart once I left.
`It'll be a bit obvious,' I told him, `if you've no other guests.'
`Maddy's all for it. It's fine.'
Of course she was. A perfect scoop. I was determined to give her nothing.
If the invitation had come from anyone other than Richard, I would have turned it down. But I valued his friendship too much. In the years since Alison's death, he'd been the only person at work that I'd been able to trust. The others professed their sympathy but it was hollow posturing. It was easier to believe the press than the words of the man accused.
I'd been teaching at the school King Edward VII in the City of London for fourteen years. Perhaps I should have expected more from my colleagues. It's amazing what one grows accustomed to, over time. At first, naturally, they had been sympathetic. I had a month's leave and several of my fellow teachers sent me flowers and cards. But after I returned, I detected a certain hostility; false smiles, and awkward silences whenever I walked into the staff-room. They couldn't relax in my presence, and though their attitude eventually softened, things were never the same after that.
Richard's friendship made the whole thing bearable. Richard and, in a strange way, the boys. For them, I acquired a certain status. I saw well-thumbed copies of Alison's novel sticking out of their school-bags and sometimes I'd catch them reading it, before they had a chance to hide it away. I had become a mysterious figure with hidden dimensions. They weren't at ease with me, but they listened harder too. If I recited poetry in class, my voice embraced a silence, hitherto unknown. I had gained a new respect, undeserved and oddly comforting.
But of the staff, only Richard took my side. We were the school hypocrites, claiming to deplore private education, but unable to leave the place. Before Alison's death, we'd even gone out a few times Alison and I, Richard and Frances. Frances had seemed rather insecure in Alison's presence, but Alison worked hard to convince her that she was no different from anyone else, that her fame, her looks, were unimportant. Afterwards, I felt closer to Richard, though it wasn't something we discussed. He seemed indifferent to my public image, and though I never bared my soul to him, I knew he understood. He didn't treat me with kid gloves either. He knew how to make me laugh.
From the beginning, Richard and I clicked. He was an art master, an eccentric figure, tolerated because he produced results. He was often to be seen wandering the corridors, sleeves rolled up, revealing his bony, pale arms, lightly spattered with paint. He towered above the groups of boys who followed him like sheep, while he was lively, forever pointing things out a high lead window, a pile of rubbish beneath the stairs. He had only to give the word and they'd be cramming themselves into small spaces with their huge sketch pads, drawing furiously and freely as he had taught them, their grubby hands clutching 3B pencils, their arms sweeping broadly across the page, inevitably smudging their efforts.
What impressed me about Richard was his ability to get away with things. Since Alison's death, I felt that I was being watched, that people were waiting for me to make a mistake. Only in my teaching could I afford to be a little daring, to stretch the boys' minds. Outside the classroom, I conformed to the image they expected: gruff, distant, moody. It was easiest like that.
For Richard, it was different. People were fonder of him, as if they knew that without him the school would turn stagnant. Perhaps it was simply Richard's manner; his nonchalance, his blasé approach. Even his voice charmed them. It was high-pitched, but his enunciation was crisp, his tone distracted. The truth is, Richard affected such innocence that the Head, who had one set of rules for the rest of the staff, made another for him and treated him indulgently. Richard gave the boys something, I think, opened new doors. I tried, also, to show them new possibilities, but sometimes I struggled to convey my meaning. Even in the drama classes, I felt certain that they never saw beyond the stage and the proscenium arch. Their imaginations never took flight and I knew that I must accept some blame for that.
At lunch-times, I often walked in the churchyard adjacent to the school, not an expression of my excessive morbidity (though it was perceived as such), but because it gave me space to think. Occasionally I saw Richard with his sixth-formers. He'd be squatting beside them, as they sketched the tombstones and the undergrowth. Richard didn't want them to miss anything, and when I peered over their shoulders often I saw things differently too. I noticed things which I had completely missed: the complex patina of mould on the stones, the bright flecks of blue on a caterpillar's back. Once, in Richard's absence, I came across a newly dug plot and was shocked when I saw two of his boys entrenched there, grinning up from the open grave.
`We have to view the world from new angles, Sir,' they explained.
And I stayed, watching them, as they drew the trees that loomed above them, and the distorted lines of a crumbling angel.
On the night of the dinner, a Saturday, I anticipated the worst, yet couldn't bring myself to cancel. I left home early, perhaps desiring to get it over with, but when I got close to Richmond, I decided to delay my arrival for as long as possible. I took a detour around the Green and pulled up in a vacant space. It was a fine, hot evening. Young people had gathered on the grass to drink and smoke. It looked inviting and I decided to stay for a while. I bought a beer in the pub and sat on a bench. A group of foreign students were sitting close by and one of them picked up a guitar and began to sing. It was an unfamiliar song, but it reminded me of the folk-songs I'd heard a long time ago in Andalucia with Alison. We had been staying in a mountain village, high up, apart from the world. We hadn't known each other long. She was still thin, wasted, recovering from her illness. She had wanted to go somewhere where she might not be recognised, where we might get to know each other in peace.
I remembered her now, in the guitar-bar, watching, listening, her expression rapt. The man playing was silver-haired, tanned, dressed in white. His face was creased in laughter as he sung. We were a little drunk perhaps. I had feasted on paella, sucking the meat from crab-claws, encouraging Alison to do the same. But she ate little that evening. Her pleasure came from the air, the music. `He knows how to live,' she had whispered.
The boy with the guitar had the same easy abandonment. He threw the instrument down when some friends arrived and leapt up to greet the girls with hugs, kisses. I couldn't stay to watch. Instead I took a walk along the pavement, past the theatre, the library, then back, in a full circle, until I reached the red-brick town houses that seemed to characterise this place. Inside, lamps were being lit, curtains drawn. A middle-aged couple emerged from one, the man in black-tie, the woman in a ball-gown that revealed her stringy neck. She fiddled with her pearls and I knew it was time to go.
I drove along the leafy streets with a sinking feeling inside. I could never live in a place like this. It was too ordered, too cosy, with the great Victorian houses set back from the road behind hedges, willow-trees, high walls. When I arrived, on time, I was told that `Maddy' was running late. The atmosphere seemed stilted. Richard didn't seem himself and Frances was flushed and anxious. I could barely believe it. Everything, from the linen-swathed table to the smouldering church candles, made me feel I was about to take part in some elaborate ceremony, not have dinner with friends. The plates and napkins were brilliant white; the cutlery and the glasses shone. In the centre, a vase of Madonna-lilies seemed to expose themselves. Ill-chosen, their scent was at once sensual and funereal.
In fact, I had not anticipated the ostentation of Richard's lifestyle. The first duet from Lakmé was playing, which added to the general air of opulence. Though I was impressed, I was also shocked. I'd been living pretty humbly myself, which made the grandeur seem all the more incongruous. I had always admired Richard, yet now, oddly, I pitied him. It didn't suit him, being here.
`Are these yours?' I asked. I indicated the paintings on the dining-room wall.
He nodded. `I did them about twenty years ago. When Frances was pregnant with Helen.'
The pictures were unexpected, seemed unrepresentative of the Richard I knew. As we talked about the end of term, my retirement, about Madeleine and how I was bound to like her I was distracted by what I saw. The walls of the dining room were painted pale primrose, and the paintings formed a bold contrast. They were interesting: huge flowers, like O'Keefe, only more vibrant; gorgeous yellows, intense blues. Yet I felt dissatisfied. I'd always assumed that Richard's work would be more daring. These images seemed controlled in their extravagance and an unkind thought crossed my mind. Was our school eccentric quite what we believed him? Was he not, rather, as conservative as the next man? Did he simply like to play the bohemian?
At once I dismissed such an idea. Richard had always been honest about his wealth: `I'm a kept man, Harry, Frances is loaded.' Yet somehow I had imagined a scruffy house, desks spilling books, shelves crammed with artefacts. I'd imagined he'd have an eye for peculiar antiquities, but home for Richard was more like something from House & Garden. The room was designed to please the eye nothing was out of place. I looked at my friend through fresh eyes and wondered, was he happy, living like this? I thought of his manner with the boys, his enthusiasms, his passions. Were they not being strangled here? Did these possessions not weigh him down?
When the doorbell rang, I was almost relieved. All I could think of was the need to be civil. As she entered the room, my immediate thought was that she was not as I had imagined her. She was much smaller than I had expected: small-boned, small-breasted and thin, with painfully white skin and jet-black bobbed hair. Her narrow lips were painted red and her eyes had a look of uncertainty, a saving grace. Still, in her plain black dress, I thought she had the air of a diminutive witch.
She held out her hand and gave a light but firm handshake. Her fingers were ice-cold.
`Pleased to meet you,' she said. Such control, even in the voice. I wondered what Richard was thinking when he had imagined us together.
As the conversation began, as yellow wine trickled into long-stemmed glasses, I watched Madeleine, attempting to discover her motives. I had no energy for small-talk, no desire to impress, yet I knew that even if I revealed nothing I would reveal something. Though I tried, I could not get my knowledge of her profession out of my head. Her presence forced me to think of Alison, because I knew that Alison was on her mind. And what would she make of me? If I were moody it would confirm my reputation. If I made jokes, she might write that I was callous. My hands clenched the base of my chair and only the earnest look on Richard's face prevented me from leaving. I felt a vague terror begin to grip me but I knew I must mask it.
`Richard tells me you're planning to leave the school ...' she said, as Frances placed the starters before us, small slices of white mousse, studded with pink. `This smells wonderful, Frances what is it?'
`Smoked salmon terrine. My mother's recipe.'
`Yes,' I said. `A week to go.'
`Will you miss it?'
`I'll miss Richard,' I said. I swallowed the first mouthful of mousse: frothy and pungent. `And the boys.'
`And he'll be missed,' Richard said. `It'll be a great loss.'
Of course, Madeleine knew better than to ask about Alison. But her style of conversation was interrogative; she revealed little about herself. Paranoia, Harry. I remembered Richard's words. Still, I felt exposed. I didn't want to answer questions. Perhaps, somewhere inside myself, I was aware of my own vanity, the foolishness of my distrust. In every question, I could see a trap but Richard and Frances were blind to it. Furious at myself for agreeing to this, I felt I was betraying Alison. Though I made an effort to give nothing away, I constantly wanted to bite my tongue, regretting even the smallest detail I revealed. The questions were becoming more blatant.
`Is it true that you're planning to write a novel?'
`Where on earth did you get that idea?'
`I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. You know how it is. People talk.'
`They talk rubbish,' I said. `It's not true. Categorically not true.'
Perhaps Richard realised then his mistake. There was no flirting here, just a furtive battle. Frances stood up and removed our plates.
`That was lovely,' Madeleine said, though her voice was subdued. I helped myself to wine, a Chardonnay which I didn't much care for, but I kept downing it all the same. I was reluctant to speak.
Then Richard said, `Harry's planning a trip to India, isn't that right?'
It was painful to hear him try so hard.
`Yes, at least I think so. In October.'
Richard refilled Madeleine's glass. Then Frances returned with the main course tiny poussins trussed up with string, nestling beside baby vegetables on a large white platter. The sight made me feel faintly sick. I wasn't in the mood for dissection.
I must have had quite a lot to drink because what I remember most about that part of the evening is the difficulty I had wrestling with the miniature bones, the inadequacy of my knife and fork. There was some chat between the women about Madeleine's latest assignment, but I was barely listening. I was thinking it's all so frivolous, so fucking frivolous. Why doesn't that woman just come out and say what she's thinking? But then I must have lost track of the conversation, because suddenly I realised I'd been asked a question. I looked up blankly.
I cursed myself for being drunk.
`You used to have a garden, didn't you?' Madeleine said.
A garden? No. Alison's garden. Alison had a garden. They seemed to take my anger for confusion.
In an attempt to help me out, Frances said, `Maddy's very keen on gardening. She's just bought a house here, a few streets away.'
But I was no longer listening. Another memory took hold. The tiny plot of land at the back of our house in Clapham, overhung by trees, a dank, wet place, with a pond smothered by a tangle of waterlilies. Even in the drier areas, towards the back, the monotony of grey stone was broken only by foliage and the occasional white bloom: roses, a foxglove or two, clematis that strayed over the fence. She used to sit out there in the evening when her head was too full of words, she said, and she couldn't write another thing. She'd sit by the water's edge on the wooden bench I could see her from the kitchen window. She'd close her eyes and tilt her face to the sky, seeming so distant, so self-contained. Once I asked her what she thought about out there. I thought it might be her past, troubling her. But she said it was nothing; that she was listening to the leaves.
Now I couldn't talk any more. I watched the candle-wax fall on the table-cloth. Like Alison I closed my eyes, wishing that the world would melt away. I can't do this, I thought. I can't talk to these people. The colours of Richard's paintings were imprinted on my eyelids and I imagined them dripping from the canvas. The flowers began to blur. I opened my eyes. Still they waited for a reply.
And then I was saved. In the door-way, a girl appeared. She stood a little hesitantly; an uninvited guest. I turned to look at her. She was very tall and thin, rather boyish. She wore jeans and a loose white shirt with a blue sweater slung around her hips. Her pale, blonde hair was tied back from her face. And I nearly didn't believe in her. Her face seemed so familiar to me, I was convinced I had imagined her.
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