Read an Excerpt
Flowers in the Rain & Other Stories
By Rosamunde Pilcher
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1991 Rosamunde Pilcher
All rights reserved.
The Doll's House
Opening his eyes, William recognized the feel of Saturday morning. A lightness in the atmosphere, an ambience of freedom. From downstairs came the smell of frying bacon, and outside in the garden Loden, the dog, began to bark. He heard his mother go to open the door and call him indoors. William stirred and reached for his wrist- watch. Eight o'clock.
Because there was no urgency to be up and about, he lay for a little, considering the day ahead. It was April, and a lozenge of sunlight lay across his carpet. The sky beyond the window was a pale, pellucid blue traversed by random, slow-moving clouds. A day to be spent out of doors; the sort of day when his father would have collected the family together with a shout and an exciting, impetuous plan, piling them all into the car and driving them to the seaside, or up onto the moors for a long hike.
Most of the time William tried not to think too much about his father, but every now and then memories would come surging back, like pictures, clean-cut, and with very sharp edges. Then he would see his father striding up a brackeny slope, with Miranda on his shoulders because the climb was too steep for her short fat legs. Or hear his deep voice, reading to them on winter evenings. Or see his clever hands, mending a bicycle, or doing intricate things with electric plugs and fuse-boxes.
He bit his lip and turned his head on the pillow, as though to turn from some unimaginable pain, but that was even worse, because now he was confronted by the object that stood, accusing, on his work-table at the other side of the room. Last night, when he had finished his homework, he had laboured over this thing for an hour or more, and had finally climbed into bed knowing that it had defeated him.
Now, it seemed to his imagination, it openly sneered at him.
You haven't a hope of enjoying yourself today. You're going to spend this Saturday wrestling with me. And you'll probably lose.
It was enough to make a strong man despair. Twenty pounds it had cost him, and all he had to show for it was something that looked more like an orange box than anything else.
After a bit, he got out of bed and went across the room to examine it more closely, hoping that it would look better than he remembered. It didn't. A floor, a back, two sides; a pile of small bits of wood about the size of nail-files, and a page of baffling, incomprehensible instructions.
Glue to scotia angle to the top front edge of the front panel.
Glue window jambs to inner head cills.
A doll's house. It was meant to be a doll's house. For Miranda's seventh birthday, two weeks away. It was a secret, even from his mother. And he couldn't finish it because he was too clumsy or too stupid or possibly both.
Miranda had always wanted a doll's house, had been asking for one for the past year. Their father had promised that she would get it for her birthday, and the fact that he was no longer there had made no difference to Miranda, who was too young to understand, too young to be told that she must learn to go without.
"I'm going to get a doll's house for my birthday," she boasted to her friends while they dressed up in tattered party clothes and old ostrich feathers and totter-heeled shoes sizes too big for them. "They promised."
William, worried by this, had a conference with his mother. This took place when they were alone together, eating supper. Before his father died, he used to have high tea with Miranda and then watch television for a bit, but now, at twelve years old, he had been promoted. So, over the chops and broccoli and mashed potatoes, William said, "She thinks she's getting that doll's house."
"We must give her one."
"They're dreadfully expensive."
"I know. And he'd have bought her a beauty, no expense spared. But now, we don't have that sort of money to spend on presents."
"What about a second-hand one?"
"Well ... I'll look ..."
She looked. She found one in the local antique shop, but it cost more than a hundred pounds. A second-hand dealer produced another, but it was so tatty and shabby that the thought of actually giving it to Miranda for her birthday was somehow an insult to the child's intelligence. Together, William and his mother cased the toy shops, but the doll's houses there were horrible plastic things with pretend doors and windows that didn't open.
"Perhaps we would wait another year," his mother suggested. "It would give us more time to save up ..."
But William knew that it had to be this year. If they let Miranda down now, he knew that she would probably never trust an adult again. Besides, they owed it to his father.
And then, the answer came. By chance he saw the advertisement on the back page of the Sunday newspaper.
Build your own traditional doll's house from one of our kits. Full instructions, so simple a child could follow them. Special offer, open for only two weeks. £19.50, including post and packing.
He read this, and then, more carefully, read it again. There were snags. For one thing, woodwork was not his strong point. Top of his class in English and history, he nevertheless found it well-nigh impossible to drive a straight screw. For another, there was the question of money. His pocket money had been severely cut since the death of his father, and this he was saving to buy a calculator.
But needs must when the devil drives. The instructions were so simple, a child could follow them. And he could probably manage for a bit longer without the calculator. He made up his mind; wrote out the order form, withdrew his savings from the bank, bought a postal order and sent away for the doll's-house kit.
He did not tell his mother what he had done. Each morning he got up early and went downstairs to intercept the postman before she should see the parcel. When at last it came, he carried it straight up to his bedroom and hid it under the wardrobe. That evening he shut himself away and ceremoniously unwrapped the package, to be faced with a confusion of oddly shaped pieces of board, a polythene bag filled with very small pieces of plywood, a tube of glue, some nails, and a closely typed instruction sheet. He took a deep breath, found a hammer, lighted his lamp and set to work.
To begin with it wasn't bad, and he got the main bits of the house together. But then the problems started. There was a diagram for fitting the windows into their apertures, but the instructions might have been written in double Dutch.
Glue jambs to inner head cills, making a complete L frame all around the window.
He made a sound of disgust. It was impossible. Before breakfast, it was even more impossible. William turned from the maddening object, got dressed, and went downstairs to find something to eat.
As he crossed the hall, the telephone rang, and as he happened to be alongside, he picked up the receiver.
"Yes." He made a private face. It was Arnold Ridgeway, and Arnold, he knew, rather fancied William's mother. Although William could understand this, he found Arnold's company fairly heavy weather. Arnold ran the big hotel on the far side of town, and he was a widower, and very cheerful and noisy in a hail-fellow-well-met sort of way. Lately, William had begun to suspect that Arnold had private plans to marry his mother, but he hoped very much that this would not happen. His mother did not love Arnold. There was a certain private look about her that only happened every now and then—a sort of secret radiance—and William had not seen this since his father had died. It was certainly never evident when she was in Arnold's company.
There was, however, always the possibility that Arnold might wear her down with the sheer force of his personality, and she would marry him for the comfort and security of his wordly goods. She would do such a thing for his sake and for Miranda's, he knew. For her children she would be prepared to make any sacrifice.
"Arnold here!" His voice fairly carolled over the phone. "How's your mother this morning?"
"I haven't seen her yet."
"Such a lovely day. Thought I might take you all out for lunch. Drive over to Cottescombe, have lunch in the Three Bells. We could go and look at the Game Park. How does that sound to you?"
"It sounds great, but I think I'd better get my mother." Then he remembered the doll's house. "But I don't think I can come. It's very kind of you, but I've got ... well, lots of homework to do, and things like that."
"That's a pity. Never mind. Another time. Fetch your mother, like a good boy."
He put down the receiver and went into the kitchen.
"That's Arnold on the phone ..."
She was sitting at the table, drinking coffee and reading the morning paper. She wore her old turquoise wool dressing-gown and her beautiful red hair lay like silk down to her shoulders.
"Oh, thank you, darling." She stood up, laying aside the paper, and brushed his head with her hand as she went out of the room.
Miranda, decked out as usual in beads and earrings, was eating her boiled egg.
"Hello, bootface," William greeted her and went to the hot drawer to find his breakfast. It was bacon and sausage and egg.
"What does Arnold want?" Miranda asked.
"Asking us all out for lunch."
She was immediately interested. "To a restaurant?" She was a social child, and loved eating out.
"That's the idea."
"Oh, good." When their mother returned, she asked at once, "Are we going?"
"If you'd like to, Miranda. Arnold thought Cottescombe would be fun."
William said shortly, "I can't come."
"Oh, darling, do. It's such a lovely day."
"I've got things I have to do. I'll be all right."
She did not argue. She knew, of course, that there was a secret up in his bedroom, but it was always carefully dust-sheeted when she went up to make his bed, and he knew that she was too highly principled ever to peep.
She sighed. "All right. We'll leave you behind. You can have a peaceful day on your own." She picked up the paper again. "The Manor House has been sold."
"How do you know?"
"It's here, in the paper. It's been bought by a man called Geoffrey Wray. He's the new manager of that electronics factory in Tryford. See for yourself ..."
She handed the newspaper over to him, and William read the item with some interest. The Manor House used to belong to Miss Pritchett, and this house, the one in which William and his mother and Miranda lived, had once been the gate-lodge of the Manor, so whoever bought the big house would be their nearest neighbour.
Old Miss Pritchett had been an excellent neighbor, allowing them to use her garden as a short cut to the common and the hills beyond, and letting the children pick apples and plums in her orchard. But old Miss Pritchett had died three months ago, and since then the house had stood empty and sad.
But now ... the manager of the electronics factory. William made a face.
His mother laughed. "What's that for?"
"Sounds a bit boring. Bet he looks like an adding machine."
"We'd better not go through the garden any longer. At least not until we're invited to."
"He probably won't ever invite us."
"You mustn't have preconceived ideas. He might have a wife and a lot of jolly children for you to make friends with."
But William only said, "I doubt it," and put down the newspaper and went on with his breakfast.
* * *
He worked all morning on the doll's house. At twelve o'clock, his mother tapped at his door, and he went out onto the landing, carefully closing the door behind him.
"We're just off, William." She wore her cord trousers and a big blanket coat and smelt of her best scent.
"Have a good time."
"There's a shepherd's pie in the oven for your lunch. And take Loden for a walk if you've time."
"But don't go through the Manor House garden."
* * *
The front door closed and he was alone. Reluctantly he went back to his task. He had made the staircase, gluing each little tread carefully into place, but for some reason it was a fraction too wide for the space allotted to it and impossible to fit into place.
Perhaps he had done something wrong. He went back, for the thousandth time, to the instruction sheet.
Glue stair treads to base. Glue second mid-wall to base ...
He had done all that. And still the stairs would not fit. If only he had someone to ask, but the only person he could think of was his woodwork teacher, whom he didn't much like anyway.
Suddenly, he longed for his father. His father would have known exactly what to do, would have taken over, reassured, explained, eased the little staircase into place with his clever fingers.
His father had always made everything so simple, so right. His father ...
Horrified, unable to do anything about it, he felt the lump grow in his throat and the half-finished doll's house and all its attendant bits and pieces were dissolved, lost, in a flood of tears. He had not cried for years; could not remember when he had last cried, and was appalled at his own childishness. Thank goodness there was no person but himself in the house; no person to see or hear or come to comfort. He found a handkerchief and blew his nose, wiped away the shameful tears. Beyond the open window he saw the warm spring day beckoning to him. He stuffed the handkerchief into the pocket of his jeans, thought, oh, to hell with the doll's house, and was out of the room and down the stairs before he had even thought about it, whistling for Loden, bursting out of the front door, running as though he were competing in a vital race, with the cool air blowing into his face, and the black sheep-dog bounding delightedly at his heels.
After a bit, when he could run no farther, and was panting and gasping, and had a stitch, it was better. He felt released, refreshed. He bent double to relieve the stitch, to embrace Loden, and bury his face in the dog's thick, dark coat.
When he had got his breath back, he straightened up, and it was only then that he realized he had forgotten his mother's stricture, and that his feet, in their headlong escape, had carried him quite naturally through the gates of the Manor House and half- way up the drive. For a moment he hesitated, but the prospect of retracing his steps and going around by the road was too tedious for words. Besides, the house had only just been sold. There would be nobody there. Not yet.
He was wrong. As he came around the last curve of the lane, he saw the car parked in front of the house. The front door was open and a tall man was on the point of emerging, with a dog at his side. Immediately, all was lost. Miss Pritchett had not owned a dog, and Loden considered this his garden. He now let out a furious woof and all his hackles went up. The other dog sprang to instant attention, and William grabbed, just in time, for Loden's collar.
Dark mutterings sounded in Loden's throat. "For heaven's sake, Loden, behave yourself," William whispered desperately, but the other dog was already bounding towards them, a friendly-looking Labrador bitch, ready and waiting for a game.
Loden growled again. "Loden!" William jerked his collar. The growl changed to a whine. The Labrador approached and the dogs tentatively sniffed at each other. Loden's hackles subsided, his tail began to wag. Cautiously, William released him, and the two dogs began to romp. So that was all right. Now he had to deal with the Labrador's owner. He looked up. The man was coming towards him. A tall man, with a pleasantly weather-beaten look, as though he spent much time out of doors. The wind ruffled his greying hair, and he wore spectacles and a blue sweater. He carried a clipboard and a yardstick. He looked a bit like an architect. William hoped that he was.
He said, "Good morning."
The man looked at his wrist-watch. "Actually, it's good afternoon. Half past one."
"I didn't know it was so late."
"What are you doing?"
"I'm taking my dog for a walk. Going over the common and up onto the hill. I always used to come this way when Miss Pritchett was alive." He enlarged on this. "I live in the house at the bottom of the road."
"What's your name?"
"William Radlett. I saw in the paper this morning that this house has been sold, but I didn't think there'd be anybody here."
"Just looking around," said the man. "Taking a few measurements."
"Are you an architect?"
"No. My name's Geoffrey Wray."
"Oh, so you ...? He felt himself grow red in the face. "But you ..." He had almost said, You don't look like an adding machine. "I ... I'm afraid I'm trespassing," he finished at last, sounding feeble.
"No matter," said Mr. Wray. "I'm not living here yet. Like I said, just taking a few measurements." He turned to look back at the worn fabric face of the house. As though seeing it for the first time, William noticed the rotting trellis that supported the upper balcony, the blistered paintwork and broken guttering.
He said, "I suppose it will need a lot done to it. It's a bit old-fashioned."
"Yes, but charming. And most of it I can do myself. It'll take time, but that's half the fun." The two dogs were by now quite at ease with each other, chasing around the rhododendron bushes and searching for rabbits. "They've made friends," observed Mr. Wray.
Excerpted from Flowers in the Rain & Other Stories by Rosamunde Pilcher. Copyright © 1991 Rosamunde Pilcher. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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