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Now, she’s been offered an incredible dream house in the country. Of course, accepting means having to cope with her domineering mother-in-law, her husband’s wacky family, and all their assorted scandals. But suddenly, none of it matters. Because she’s met HIM. His ...
Now, she’s been offered an incredible dream house in the country. Of course, accepting means having to cope with her domineering mother-in-law, her husband’s wacky family, and all their assorted scandals. But suddenly, none of it matters. Because she’s met HIM. His name is Charles; he’s a famous television writer, gorgeous, witty, charming, and very, very attracted to her. And, he’s married. Well, a woman can’t have everything. Or can she?
In this delightfully sexy, amusing romp through mishap and desire, Catherine Alliott hits the shores of America with a romantic comedy of manners and unexpected passion—in which her plucky heroine discovers that despite her best intentions, love has a plan all its own!
“She’ll have you for breakfast,” observed Jess tartly, rubbing a bit of grime off a Spode jug and setting it down on the trestle table in front of us.
“Who will?” I broke from my contemplation of the assorted bric-a-brac and antiques before us to glance up defensively.
“Your mother-in-law, of course. Talk about strolling back into the lion’s den. You didn’t actually say you’d go, did you?”
“Of course I did,” I said hotly. “Christ, Jess, if someone offered you two sets of school fees and a converted barn over your head in a picturesque rural idyll, don’t tell me you’d pass it up! Don’t tell me you wouldn’t leap at it, too, and anyway, she’s my ex-mother-in-law—that makes all the difference.”
“Rubbish,” she scoffed as she arranged a fistful of silver spoons on our faded velvet tablecloth. “Not in her eyes. As far as she’s concerned you’ll always be the mother of her grandchildren, and that, my dear Lucy, is entirely the point. That is precisely why you’ve been offered such a mouthwatering package down in Netherby-sur-la-ancestral-pile with all its crumbling turrets and sod-off acres. It has absolutely nothing to do with your well-being or your welfare, and certainly nothing to do with your undoubted charms.” She beamed past me as a customer loomed. “Yes, madam, it is Royal Worcester and you’re quite right, there’s just a teeny bit of damage to the spout, but otherwise it’s in wonderful condition for such a rare piece, don’t you think?”
She bestowed a radiant smile on Madam, who, swaddled in eth- nic knits on this flaming cold June day and with all the hallmarks of a seasoned Portobello Road aficionado, was peering doubtfully over her spectacles. She ran a practiced eye over the rest of the collectibles on our stall, sniffed, and put the teapot down. She looked far from convinced.
“No,” she snapped. “I think it’s in rather ropy condition actually. And I also think that all these tags you’ve put on everything are very misleading. Who are you to tell me that’s a ‘very decorative piece of early Meissen?’ Surely I should be the judge of whether it’s decorative or not, and I fail to see why that bit of old lace is so ‘absurdly pretty’ or why that rusty old oil lamp so ‘quintessentially important in the molding of eighteenth-century France.’ ”
“It’s to help some of our less discerning customers,” purred Jess obsequiously. “To point them in the right direction, lead them, antiquarily speaking, to the right century, right country even, so they don’t feel foolish asking. Clearly you don’t need any pointers, but golly,” she rolled her eyes expressively, “you should see some of the types we get round here.”
I smiled down into my plastic mug of hot chocolate, lacing my cold fingers around it and reflecting that Jess’s labels had indeed gotten more and more outrageous as the weeks had gone by. We’d temporarily taken over the antique stall from my mother, Maisie, who’d had a stall in the Portobello Road since the beginning of time, and certainly since I was a little girl. In the last couple of weeks, though, her chronic arthritis had almost forced her to give it up, so I’d stepped into the breach to keep it going until she was better, roping my oldest friend, Jess, in with me. For Jess it made a welcome diversion from changing her small son’s nappy at the weekend, and for me—well, antiques were my passion, so I was happy. Happy just soaking up the atmosphere of this famous street, gazing at the stalls crammed haphazardly along it, silver next to clocks and watches, old farm implements next to yellowing books, starched Victorian christening gowns billowing in the breeze beside pop memorabilia, and, of course, my mother’s own eclectic offerings, which included anything from French café ashtrays, to exquisite porcelain, to faded sepia postcards. I’d even added a few choice pieces of my own, which I’d priced ridiculously high and watched like a hawk, hoping secretly that they wouldn’t sell but knowing I needed the money.
I needn’t have worried. As we’d sat there, three Saturdays in a row now, surrounded by what we thought were the most delicious and interesting bits of other people’s domestic history, we’d sold very little. Even more galling was having to look on incredulously whilst Fat Ronnie at the next-door stall—peddler of crap, both verbal and antique, and with a special interest in flatulence, his own and other people’s—sold shedfuls.
“Orright, gels?” he’d yelled over last week as he popped yet another sensationally ugly toby jug into a plastic bag and handed it to its proud new owner. “Need any help over there? Blimey, you won’t sell much wiv that heap of rubbish!”
He chuckled and fanned theatrically behind his backside to let us know that he’d broken wind for the millionth time that day. “Surprised you’ve got any customers at all!”
“Surprised you’ve got any trousers,” Jess had muttered, but then, with characteristic zeal, had whirled into action.
“It’s his labels,” she hissed, swinging round to me, “that’s all. His stuff’s rubbish, we know that, but it’s the way he sells it. That’s where we’re going wrong, Lucy. You can’t just bung it all down on a trestle table and hope for the best. It’s all in the marketing!”
“I’m not sure you really market bric-a-brac, do you?” I said doubtfully. “I mean, surely—”
“Of course you bloody market it, and don’t call it bric-a-brac for heaven’s sake. Some of this stuff is priceless!”
I stared doubtfully at the array before us, but she was off, frenziedly slapping beautifully restored onto a horribly cracked chamber pot and breathtakingly pretty onto one of our major mistakes, a hideous piece of Coalport bought from another stallholder after a liquid Saturday lunch. I have to say, the bits of tartan ribbon Jess tied them on with did improve the look of our offerings and we didn’t do too badly that week, but not so today.
Today, tartan ribbon notwithstanding, business was disastrous, and as Fat Ronnie leered across, hands deep in pockets, jingling his change around his privates, we gave in.
“Come on,” muttered Jess. “Let’s pack it in.”
“Business a bit slow is it, gels?” he called. “Can I offer you a loan?” He jingled some more.
“No thanks,” said Jess, eyeing his crotch with distaste. “Not when we know where it’s been.”
He chuckled. “Ah well, all the more for me then.” Suddenly he frowned, sniffed the air. “Dear God, who’s dropped one? That you, Lucy?”
“Shut up, Ronnie,” I said wearily, getting up to wrap some brass candlesticks in newspaper.
“Well, someone let one go.” He sighed, shook his head. “I don’t know, you girls with your educated accents and your silk shirts and your violin lessons, and you can still belt them out like that. Frightening.” He shuddered.
“How did we do?” I asked, ignoring him as Jess shook the little velvet bag of money onto the table.
“Twenty-two pounds and . . . six pence.”
“That’s our worst yet.”
“I know.” She sighed, pouring it all back in again. “Oh well,” she said grudgingly, “I suppose at least you’ll be taken away from all this. But I still think you’re selling your soul.”
“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic!” I snapped. “What option have I got? I can’t afford to send Ben to a good school—and he hates the one he’s at—and I can’t stay in that tiny little flat any longer, either. Even if I could afford it, which I can’t, the three of us are bursting at the seams, and I certainly can’t move back in with Maisie and Lucas and cramp their style forever. And anyway, Jess, what could be nicer than living in the country?” I demanded. “The children walking across the fields to school, ponies to ride,” I said wistfully, “streams to dam, daisies to, um, you know . . .”
“Chain,” she said dryly, “prior to rattling them. Come on, Lucy; you’re a city girl through and through and you know it. You’ll miss all of this, for heaven’s sake!” She swung her arm around at the bustling street full of traders and tourists, alive with cheerful banter and laughter and haggling and eating on the hoof. “You’ll miss the buzz. I mean, I’m willing to accept that fresh air is wonderful for the cheeks, but it doesn’t do much for the brain—you’ll stagnate down there. Christ, you don’t know one end of a cow from another! And you said yourself when you married Ned that the one thing you’d never do was go and live near his ghastly parents—and now look at you. He’s not even here anymore, and down you go.”
“Jess, I have to cut my cloth,” I warned tersely.
“Yes, to go and live on your parents-in-law’s estate, totally at their mercy, completely beholden to them, and absolutely at their beck and call. There you’ll be with Lady Horse-Face lording it over you, Lord Tit-Face pinching your bum at every conceivable opportunity, the tragic Lavinia drinking herself to a standstill, Pinkie-Pie, or whatever she’s called, gleefully bonking stable boys in haylofts, drippy Hector dithering ineffectually around trying to convince his father he’s got what it takes to take over All This one day, and all the time surrounded by the memory of your dead husband, who’ll stalk in and out of the plot like Banquo’s ghost!” Her normally pale face was pink and her eyes shone. I blinked at her in silence.
“Sorry,” she said abruptly, averting her eyes. “I mean—that last bit. But you know what they’re like, Lucy,” she urged. “God, at least you’ve faced up to it, coped with it, and brilliantly, too, but four years have gone by and they haven’t even started. Haven’t even begun to accept he’s dead. That house is like a shrine to Ned—everywhere you go there are photos of him; his childhood fossil collection still sits in the hall; cricket bats he once owned are stuck up on the walls; even paintings he did as a child, for heaven’s sake, are pinned up in the kitchen. His room is untouched up in that godforsaken turret, and the way they talk about him! Constantly, as if he’s still there, sitting at the table with them, and not in a nice, relaxed way like dropping his name into the conversation, but long and hard, for hours, like they’ve been taught to do in therapy or something. There’s just no getting away from him. I’m surprised they haven’t got him embalmed in the cellar.” She stopped when she saw my face.
“OK,” she muttered hastily, hoisting a sackful of china onto her back and picking up one end of the table we’d speedily collapsed, “that was tasteless, I agree. But you must admit, Luce, it’s going to set you back about three years, and you were doing so well. You’ve got those four mornings a week in your beloved porcelain department at Christie’s, you’ve got this stand on a Saturday—”
“This stand,” I said witheringly, swinging another sack onto my shoulder and picking up the other end of the table.
She swept on regardless. “The kids are doing well, and you’re so much better. God, Luce, you’re finally out of the loop.” Like a couple of paperhangers we picked up our table and plunged into the heaving, drizzling depths of the Portobello Road, dodging through the crowds, loaded down with goodies.
“I mean, OK, the money’s tight,” she yelled back at me through the noise, “but give it a couple more years and you’ll be fine; you’ll be through it. But to give up on London, on your flat, and go down there, to be swamped by that wretched family again . . .”
“The money’s not tight, Jess.” I stopped suddenly in the street, jolting her to a standstill. “It’s bloody nonexistent! I get paid a pittance by Christie’s for busting a gut—”
“But you love it!”
“Yes, and I can keep on doing it.”
She gaped. “From Oxfordshire?”
“Course I can! God, people do commute from there, you know; it’s not entirely the back of beyond. And I’m going to change it to two full days, which will suit me much better,” I said confidently. “And anyway,” I sighed, picking up the table and moving on again, “I told you, even if I wanted to stay in that flat, I can’t. I can’t afford it; the mortgage is crippling.”
“So why don’t Lord and Lady Po-Face offer to pay it for you?” she demanded. “Or . . . or why don’t they offer to set you up somewhere else, in London? Why does it have to be down there with them?”
“Because Ben starts prep school soon and they’ve offered to pay the fees,” I began patiently. “And because he needs somewhere that can cope with dyslexia.”
“And because they want him to go to the Right One. The school of their choice, not Highfield Road where he is now—”
“Where he’s bullied and they sniff glue—”
“But somewhere much more traditional, somewhere where they can make a man of him, mold him into a nice little Grenadier Guard like his grandfather. They want control, Luce, control of you for a start—God, word might even have got back that you’ve had a few hot dates; well, they’ll want to knock that right on the head for starters—but more important, control of the children. They want to monitor them, choose their friends, organize their social lives—of course they want you down there in their tastefully converted barn in their back garden!”
“Oh, don’t be absurd,” I said hotly. “You’re so cynical, Jess. It’s the whole class thing with you, isn’t it? The shooting and the striding round in breeches, that’s what you hate, and that’s just small-minded, prejudicial, and snobbish. That’s like talking against ethnic minorities because they smell of curry.”
She snorted with derision at this but didn’t instantly come back at me.
“And OK,” I went on, encouraged by her silence, “Ned’s mother can be,” I hesitated, “a bit tricky at times. . . .”
“Tricky!” she scoffed. “Needs smothering with a pillow, you once said.”
“But you know recently,” I hurried on, “well, Rose and I have sort of,” I licked my lips, “bonded.”
Posted April 13, 2010
No text was provided for this review.