Read an Excerpt
The House at the Edge of the Jungle
By Mary Morgan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Mary Morgan
All rights reserved.
Victor Cartwright was fond enough of his sister, Isabel. His only sister. His only relative, come to that, apart from Isabel's husband and children, who somehow didn't count. Victor didn't use the word "love" for the sibling relationship, because love wasn't a word he used easily. His fondness for Isabel was purely the result of that accident of birth with which he'd inherited a brother's responsibility.
How else, except responsibility and a degree of fondness, to account for the suggestion that Isabel accompany him to Malaya? He knew he must have been out of his mind.
The trip had been planned for weeks. Merely business. Someone had to go to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and pass a trained eye over the books at the Far East offices of Parker and Dellworthy. Not an audit; just a reminder that London was watching what they were doing out there. Victor hadn't mentioned it to Isabel. He didn't keep his sister informed about his every move, but the fact that this trip was to Malaya was different. That dim and distant country filled a special place in her mind, and the merest mention of it invariably brought on tiresome tears and recriminations, yet as he sat at his desk with the airline tickets and hotel reservations in front of him, he found himself quite suddenly dialing her number, the sort of uncontrollable impulse not at all in his nature.
"Victor, darling! How lovely to hear your voice! I was having a cup of coffee, all alone in the kitchen, feeling sorry for myself, and now there you are, like a ray of sunshine in a gloomy day."
The exclamation marks and emotional overstatements came pouring out of the telephone. Victor could picture, only too easily, the pale oval face, the flying rambunctious hair, the great shining eyes.
It wasn't necessary to ask why she was feeling sorry for herself, because any moment now she'd tell him. Victor thought that if he were married to Adrian Bennet, he'd feel sorry for himself too.
"The house is so empty, Victor, now the boys have gone off to school. I really don't know what to do with myself all day."
"You could get a job," he suggested, not for the first time.
"I could, couldn't I? But who would employ me? And it'd mean going up to London every day, and the thought of that awful commute absolutely shrivels my innards."
"Adrian does it," Victor pointed out. "You could also move nearer to Town."
She laughed. Her laugh was infectious, deep-throated and burbling, and it made Victor smile in spite of himself. She said, "Can you see Adrian leaving his beautiful house? God, he'd sooner leave me."
Which was probably true. What Victor didn't see was why Isabel didn't leave Adrian. He, Victor, could never have put up with those constant remodeling projects, that obsessive collecting of dubious and expensive antiques. He believed the persnickety Adrian looked upon his wife more as a housekeeper for his precious objets d'art than anything else. She was a lousy housekeeper anyway. Marriage was such a mysterious state of affairs.
When Isabel sighed and said, "But the house is dreadfully empty all day, Victor. I do so miss the boys," it was then he told her about the trip to Malaya and made the fatal suggestion.
"Izzy, next week I have to go to Singapore. On company business. Then to Kuala Lumpur. I'll be gone about ten days."
He heard the indrawn breath, the catch in her throat. As long as she didn't start crying.
"How'd you like to come with me?" Why in God's name had he said it?
"Kuala Lumpur? Victor! Would I like to? Oh, God, Victor, you and me, going back there together? Oh, heavens, it's an answer to a dream."
He knew that, of course: her dream, her obsession, to return to that far-off country where they were born, to see again the house where they lived when they had parents. The parents only she could remember. She'd worried that bone all their lives.
"You'd have to pay your own airfare," he said firmly. "Though I suppose you could share a hotel room with me. The firm will pick up the tab for that, naturally." He was digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself.
"Don't worry, I'll find the money. Somehow. Who cares what Adrian says?"
Victor could imagine what Adrian would say. It gave him some satisfaction that his brother-in-law might have to forgo a piece of silver or another useless painting.
She laughed again, joyously. "Victor, it's unbelievable — one minute sitting here depressed and unhappy, the next an offer like this, out of a clear blue sky. Though the sky is by no means blue down here. Victor, you're my savior. My angel! My darling little brother. I love you, Victor."
Love. That overused word. Defiled and denigrated by the constant babblers of radio and television. A word that made him perspire.
"No need to overdo it, Izzy. Nothing stopped you going yourself, you know. You could have gone anytime if you'd really wanted to."
He thought he detected, then, the dreaded sound of a sniffle, a whine in her voice. "No, it had to be you and me together. We left together; it's only right we should go back together."
"Sentimental nonsense. I want no weeping and wailing on this trip, Izzy, you understand? Otherwise I will regret ever having suggested it." He already regretted it.
"Not a peep, Victor. Not one single damp eye. I promise."
He didn't believe her.
"Let me know when you've got your ticket," he said. "Friday week. The sixteenth. British Airways from Heathrow to Singapore. It's a hell of a long flight. Bring something to read."
He put the phone down, appalled by his own foolhardiness. There was just a faint hope she might not be able to get on the flight.
Victor left for lunch immediately, to the familiar watering hole, the Bull and Feathers, around the corner from the office. Lord knew he needed a drink. He fought his way to the bar and downed a pint with some degree of relief. The Bull and Feathers was packed as ever at lunchtime with the usual City crowd of secretaries in too much makeup and with fresh-faced minions in dark suits and striped ties, the volume of braying laughter and shouted conversation deafening, everyone jostling at the bar for food and drink. Usually he came earlier, before the real crush began. He thought it was a wonder anything was achieved in the City in the afternoons, with the amount of beer poured down the throats of the workers between one and two P.M. He looked forward to getting out of London in this dark month of November, in this dark year of 1973, out of the grimy streets and the chilly winds picking up strength for the winter ahead, out of these overcrowded, smoke-filled drinking places. He was afraid he may have ruined the escape by burdening himself with Izzy.
Though the truth was, he admitted, watching the giggling girls and the occasional male hand straying down someone's skirt, that the Far East was a long way to go all by himself. They'd sent him to America earlier in the year to learn a new bookkeeping system on Wall Street, and it'd been an uncomfortable time, the canyon-like streets of New York intimidating to an Englishman, the hotel room sterile, impersonal, the bars dark and unfriendly. He wasn't a good traveler, was not open to easy conversation with strangers, not interested in museums or people-watching. Ten days alone in the heat and foreignness of Malaya might be bad for his sanity. He had to watch his sanity.
And he owed Izzy. He thought about it sometimes, now and then, particularly after she'd irritated him beyond bearing. It's a burden to owe one's life to someone, let alone to your sister. Not that she ever reminded him of it; he gave her that. But it weighs on a man to have to look at a woman and know that but for her he wouldn't be around today. Much as one must have to look at a mother, Victor supposed, though he never had to deal with that, which was a relief to him. Apart from Isabel, he'd been able to live his life free of such onerous considerations.
A girl pushed past him and jostled his elbow, slopping beer over the edge of his glass. "Sorry," she said carelessly, with a sideways in-different glance across her shoulder. She was so near to him that her perfume overwhelmed the masculine smell of malty beer and ham sandwiches.
"Why, Victor, it's you!" She smiled and fluttered eyelashes thick with blue mascara. Why blue, in God's name? What creature in nature has blue eyelashes? For a moment, he couldn't imagine who on earth she could be, and then he dimly recognized her as one of the clerks down the hall in the office and was amazed that she not only knew his first name but was using it, as though she were some sort of intimate, some kind of equal. Victor found the usage of first names distasteful, yet another blurring of the parameters between those he was forced to be acquainted with and those he wanted to be acquainted with.
"I wouldn't have thought I'd find you in here at lunchtime, Victor." She had one of those excruciating Home County accents. "Not quite your scene, is it?"
He looked blankly at her. What did she mean, his kind of scene? "I've been coming in here most lunchtimes for the past five years, Miss ... er ..."
"Bette," she said, and drooped her blue eyelids. "With an e. Bette Lumley. I'm in the European Division. I'm an accountant too, you know. Sorry about your beer. I was in a hurry to get to the loo."
Victor stepped carefully out of her way, practically onto someone else's toes. She put one hand on his arm and slid past, her breasts brushing against him. The place was altogether too crowded, bodies forced against one another, soft flesh pressing against soft flesh, and suddenly it was airless and fetid in there, too much female scent, too much masculine breath. Women never used to come into pubs like this. Once, one could get a halfway quiet drink and sandwich at lunchtime and not be exposed to girls on the way to the loo, as they called it, wriggling their behinds and thrusting their tits against you. Once, firms like Parker and Dellworthy didn't have giggling female accountants or female lawyers one mistook for clerks. It must have been easier in the old days.
He left without finishing his beer. Somehow he almost looked forward to Malaya.CHAPTER 2
You did what?" Adrian lowered his glass and stared at her in disbelief, his mouth drooping open so that he looked for a moment like an idiot. "I can't believe I heard what I think I just heard."
She'd had trouble deciding whether to tell him before dinner, during dinner, or after dinner. Then she watched as he fixed his gin and tonic and settled into the chair by the kitchen table, comfortable and complacent, and she knew no time would be a good time.
Repeating the statement calmly, Isabel said, "I booked a ticket to go to Singapore with Victor. Friday week. The sixteenth."
Adrian buried his head in his hands. "Good God almighty, Isabel! Without even discussing it with me first?"
She was stirring the roux for the white sauce, whisking it around in the small copper pan with a wooden spoon. She didn't look at him. "I was afraid you'd try and talk me out of it."
"Too right I would. I'm still going to try and talk you out of it. I never heard such nonsense, leaping on a plane to the other side of the world without a moment's notice."
"You've got ten days' notice. And you can't talk me out of it. The ticket's nonrefundable."
"Damn it, Isabel. Look at me while you're talking to me. How much did it cost?"
She raised her head and looked at him. His thin brown hair stood on end, spiky, where he'd been pushing his fingers through it, and his mouth had drawn into a sulky and petulant pout. God forgive me, she thought, I'm not sure I can live with him anymore. She beat furiously at the thickening mixture in the pan. "Don't worry. I took the money out of my own account."
He threw his hands apart, almost knocking over his glass. Grabbing at it, he banged it down on the table. "You know we agreed to keep that money in reserve for emergencies."
"This is an emergency. I'll never have another chance like this. You know Victor would never go there unless he was sent on a business trip."
Adrian shook his head in a pitying manner, drained his glass, got up to refill it. "What sort of company do you think Victor will be, for heaven's sake? You think he's going to take you off sightseeing? Think he'll spare the time of day to look for relics of the past? You really imagine he's waiting eagerly to wallow in the mysteries of family history? Victor has absolutely no interest in all that stuff."
"Victor only pretends not to be interested in all that stuff, as you call it. Once I get him there, I know he'll want to find out things just as much as I do."
"Isabel, you have a foolish romantic view of your brother's nature. He's nothing but an old woman. Thirty-two years old and already dried up. Totally without juices."
She was always having to defend Victor to Adrian. And vice versa. They could at least pretend to like each other.
"Victor's wary of life, that's all. How would you be if you lost your mother soon after you were born? If you'd been shunted around a dangerous world as a tiny baby, no one to love you or comfort you? If you'd waited and waited for your father to come home from the war and he never came? If you'd spent all your childhood in a boarding school? He's lucky he's as normal as he is."
But Adrian had heard it all before. He snorted. "Normal? Victor? He's a prude, a lemon. Terrified of women. Look how he is with you. Keeps even his flesh and blood so far away you almost have to shout to get him to hear anything. When the feelings were handed down in your family, you got them all, Isabel. All the raw ends and all the imagination. It's you that agonizes about what happened to your parents, not Victor. Victor doesn't give a damn. I can't believe he even asked you to go with him." Stopping short, Adrian peered at her. "Did he ask you? Or did you invite yourself along?"
"Adrian, I swear he called me up this morning out of the blue. I could hardly believe it myself. Which just goes to show he wants it — doesn't he? — in spite of himself. Oh, I know Victor's a funny old stick. But he's my brother, and I love him. And he loves me, I know he does, however much he tried to pretend he doesn't."
"And I'm telling you you'll have a miserable time with him. Why, I'm more interested in your family saga than he is. You could at least have waited until I could go with you. I'd have thought you'd want me with you on a trip like this."
But that was exactly it. She didn't want Adrian with her. She wanted to be away from him. Since the boys went off to school, he'd stifled her with his unrelieved presence and insatiable sexual needs, as though getting rid of his children had released him from the constraints of fatherhood and transformed him into some kind of priapic stud. She'd been sleeping with him and eating meals alone with him in the empty beautiful house, listening to his views on the economy, the state of the nation, the political process, the Common Market, the immigrant situation, the stock market; his idea of conversation was to read an article aloud out of the newspaper over the breakfast table, an article that coincided with his views, of course. Isabel supposed she should count herself lucky he wanted to share his interests with her, except she'd discovered she had no interest in his interests. A great yawning gulf stretched before her.
She kept busy with preparations for dinner, fetching dishes, opening and shutting cupboard doors, clattering around the kitchen to make it seem warm and friendly. "Victor only pretends not to want to know. But he has to find out. I have to. We can't get on with today until we come to terms with what happened yesterday. We have to un-bury the dead to truly believe they are dead."
Across the kitchen, Adrian watched her warily, his face pinched and exasperated. "That's you talking, Isabel. Not Victor. He knows that what's gone is gone. Over and done with. In the past."
She shook her head stubbornly. "They were his parents too. Flesh of his flesh. He needs explanations. We both need explanations."
Folding his hands on the table, Adrian bent his head over them and was silent for a long few moments. When he looked up again, the anger had left his face, crumpling it into the semblance of the young man she'd once known and loved. Getting up slowly from the chair, he walked across the room, put his arms around her. "I'm just afraid it will lead to more pain, my darling. You should let go of it. You should have let go of it a long time ago."
Excerpted from The House at the Edge of the Jungle by Mary Morgan. Copyright © 1999 Mary Morgan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.