Emmy, Niall, and Sita and Jonathan miss their train back to London from a Somerset wedding, escaping Britain's worst rail crash in sixty years. Upon reflection of their mortality, the friends reevaluate their lives, and come to a decision. They will all, along with Emmy's daughter Lila, Niall's girlfriend Kat, and Sita and Jonathan's children Jay and Asha, move into the ramshackle manor house Emmy recently inherited in Cornwall. In the idyllic setting, they hope to simplify their lives.
As renovation of the house begins, a closely-guarded secret threatens to be uncovered. The bricks and mortar of the group's long friendship starts to crumble. It soon becomes clear that fresh starts have little to do with geography, and the four of them realize that escape to the country doesn't mean escape from life's problems. As choices are made and the truth comes out, will they be able to hold their friendships together?
Touching and thoughtful, with quietly elegant writing and easily relatable characters, Eggshell Days is a novel to treasure.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Rebecca Gregson's bestselling debut novel Katherine's Wheel about millennium angst was followed by Zebras Crossing, a semi-autobiographical story about trans-racial adoption (both available from Pocket Books UK). Before writing fiction, she worked as a news producer for the BBC. She lives in Cornwall, England with her husband and two children.
Read an Excerpt
By Rebecca Gregson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Rebecca Gregson
All rights reserved.
Cornwall, two months later
They were having the train-crash conversation again.
"Right, okay, I think we should stop this," Emmy said. "Now that we're here." She gripped the solid edge of the table, just to be sure they really were. Toby's table. His kitchen. Her kitchen. Their kitchen.
"That's rich, coming from you," Niall said. "You're the one who usually starts it."
"That was back then." She smiled. It was the contagious smile, the one that gave that glimpse of Maya. "Before my fairy godfather waved his magic wand." It must have been magic, because it didn't even matter to her anymore that Kat was on Niall's lap. Being at Bodinnick made up for all sorts of things. "We missed the train," she carried on. "It crashed. We could all be dead. We live here now. End of story."
"Don't you mean beginning?" Sita corrected. "This should be where it starts to get interesting."
"We hope," said Jonathan.
A blown fuse meant it was dark in the huge room, but it was a clear evening and there was a full moon, so they could at least see each other.
"Well, there are two ways of looking at what we're doing," Niall said, peering through the candlelight at the boxes of belongings all over the floor. "Essentials for simple living" was what they had all agreed to bring. It didn't look like it. "One is that we're all as mad as bollocks, and the other is that everyone else is."
"At least we don't have any secrets," Sita said quickly to reassure herself, forgetting Emmy's huge one, which was forgivable since Emmy had almost forgotten it herself. "At least we know, more or less, what we're in for."
One of them had already hung a clip frame on the flaking kitchen wall to prove it. Twenty years' worth of changing photographic technology showing them freckled, plaited, big haired, tanned, pale, bearded, bare, tear-stained, pregnant, fit, anorexic and not. It was a reminder that their bold and hasty decision was not such a risk, a reminder that everyone had seen everyone else cry at least once. Except Kat, and for most of them she didn't count.
"Downsizing," the weekend property pages annoyingly insisted on calling the move from city to country, but that hardly seemed the word for it. All three of their London addresses would have fit easily into the rambling manor with room to spare. Admittedly, the four-story Fulham terrace that Jonathan and Sita had packed up and let at top speed took up considerably more space than Emmy or Niall's rented broom cupboards, but no one was inclined to toy with architectural puzzles. The premise was that everyone here was equal. Animal Farm it was not.
Cold Comfort Farm was more like it. Two days ago, Emmy had phoned to ask the farmer's wife to light the Aga and put the heating on in readiness for their arrival, and Eileen Partridge had replied, "What heating would that be, my bird?"
Anyway, freezing or not, spring was definitely back on course after its wintery blip, and Emmy was sure Bodinnick was relieved to be full again. In fact, earlier, it was as if the house had winked at her. She was standing by the sundial just as it was getting dark, looking up at the grand façade and realizing she had waited all her life for this moment, and someone had opened and closed an internal shutter on an upstairs bedroom window. Brilliant, she'd thought, almost winking back. The house has got us and we've got each other. How can we possibly fail?
Even the near-Gothic moment of flicking on the hideous kitchen strip light and fusing the entire ground floor seemed part of the big romantic conspiracy. Candlelight made it feel as if the adventure had finally begun.
It was as if the place was welcoming her back, delighted that she had brought properly passionate people with her this time, not just a few spiritless siblings — although even with five adults, three children and a baby, it wasn't what you could call bursting at the seams. Once everyone got used to the space, though, it would shrink. Familiarity shrinks everything, she'd promised Sita and Jonathan's middle daughter, Asha, who hated bigness, hated the high ceilings, the deep windowsills, the huge, heavy doors, hated the whole idea.
It was now dusk and the excited clamor of arrival had died down to a collective sigh of relief. At last they were dining in at home instead of dining out. Dining in together, for the first probationary night in their shared kitchen in the middle of nowhere, with a leg of Cornish lamb bought from the kitty and the children pottering around the vast upstairs, metaphorically peeing on imaginary boundaries to mark their new territory.
If they were feeling lucky, it was fair enough. Britain's worst rail crash for sixty years, with a death toll of a hundred, and they should have been in it. "Carriage C," Emmy could remember Jonathan shouting when they'd first heard the news, still stranded at the station the morning after Sara's wedding. "Carriage C, Carriage C." She could even remember the way his hand burrowed frantically in his inside jacket pocket for the tickets to prove his point. "All right, all right," Sita had snapped. "We believe you." But nobody believed it really, still didn't.
"My God, we should be dead," they kept saying to each other in the days that followed. "Why aren't we dead?"
And the only answer they could come up with back in London, as they'd watched repeated television footage of the mangled lump of metal dangling from the crane's teeth, was that it hadn't been their time.
"If it had been our time, would we have died happy?"
It was that terrifying question which had started the whole ball rolling, from hermetically sealed sitting room to drafty manor kitchen in less than seventy days.
Admittedly, it helped that they had all had such a stress-laden two months, during which time the ball had careered relentlessly through their lives, apparently hell-bent on collecting every possible reason for them all to seek pastures new.
First, Niall's flat had been burgled as he lay under his duvet playing with Kat. His CD player, his tape deck, his computer and his TV all yanked from their sockets, his credit cards, mobile phone and the keys to his motorbike gone for the third time in as many years. He'd been initially furious, and then, when he found a spattering of what looked like blood across his bathroom sink, frightened.
Not as frightened as Sita had been when she witnessed a mugging at the end of their street, though. Three men, two of them standing over a third, kicking him. She, a doctor, had run for her life. For nights and nights afterward, she could not forget the clicking of her heels on the pavement, racing blindly for home in the dark, round the corner and up the steps to safety, knowing that she should have offered her help. Later, she read in the paper that the victim had died in the ambulance, of a punctured lung.
Jonathan had lain awake next to her all those nights, too, taking deep, measured breaths and feigning sleep, too depressed to ask his wife why she was troubled, too obsessed with his boss's newly cold shoulder and his secretary's suspicious sick leave to take on anyone else's pain. All he needed to ask was "Are you okay?" but they were three little words he couldn't muster.
Things could hardly have been worse between them but then Jay's persistent truancy came to light, when they were in the grip of the worst bout of flu either of them had ever experienced, and they hardly had the energy to get down to the school to discuss it. In fact, for the first appointment, they didn't.
In the end, there was no contest. There was no point in hanging on to their sanity for dear life. Life was simply too dear. If Emmy was brave enough to give it a go, so were they.
"Is it socially interesting that the women take an entirely different view from the men on this?" Niall asked now, taking an unlit cigarette from his mouth for the second time and dipping the tip in and out of the candle flame.
Emmy didn't know whether she couldn't believe they were living under the same roof again — a leaky moss-lined slate roof with missing tiles, from which you could see the sea one way and green fields the other — or whether she had always known it would be so. It was just a shame Kat was such a wrench in the works.
Niall raised his eyebrows. Both knew damn well he'd only asked the question to get an argument going.
"Would ye come out of denial? Jonathan and I are totally fatalistic about it, whereas you and Sita keep going off on some great romantic journey about the what ifs."
"Sita has never gone on a romantic journey in her life," Jonathan said affectionately, "have you, darling?"
"Don't have time," she answered. "Not with four children to look after."
"Three," Kat corrected.
"She means me," he whispered. "It's an old joke."
She might as well wear a neon sign over her head saying "I don't fit in," Emmy thought.
"So what 'what ifs' do the women do that you don't?" Sita asked Niall.
"What if we had got the train? What if you hadn't witnessed that mugging? What if Jay hadn't been picked up by the police in the middle of a school day?"
"What if your flat hadn't been burgled? What if your computer hadn't been nicked? What if you hadn't met Kat?"
Kat purred. "Do I make you feel reckless, darling?"
"Wrecked, more like it," Niall said. "Anyway, those aren't what ifs, they're why nots. That bloody larcenist took so much of my stuff I had nothing to lose, did I? No, I'm right. The men do the why nots, and the women do the what ifs."
"So why not do a what if for a change and see what happens?" Sita said quickly.
As Niall tried to work out what she had just asked him to do, Sita licked her finger and air-painted one point to her. It was a relief to remind herself that she was still the clever one, even though she was so often drunk with tiredness nowadays. Lila, living proof that even a doctor can make a contraceptive mistake, finally dropped off her breast, and she quietly adjusted her bra. There was no need for discretion; it was just the way she was. Whenever Emmy had fed Maya ten years previously, it had been an orgy of leaking nipples and tangled straps.
"Is she asleep?" Jonathan asked.
Sita nodded, tucking some of her dark, thick bob behind her ear and revealing one of the curls of gold he had given her the day Lila was born. Jewelry on the birth of a child, flowers on wedding anniversaries, a savings account for godchildren. Jonathan did everything by a book that Niall didn't even know how to open. And here they all were, banking on the fact that their differences were their strengths.
"Jaysus, Sita, that baby could suck for Britain. Ye must be knackered."
"What's with all this sudden Irishness then, Niall?" Kat asked, inspecting her toenails. Jonathan wasn't sure it was exactly what he wanted to watch at suppertime, but there were clearly going to have to be compromises. "Are you hoping for Celtic solidarity or something? E-mail me when he starts chewing straw, will you?"
When she said things like that, even Niall was relieved she hadn't chosen to go the whole Cornish hog. She had kept them all guessing, though. Yes, she would come, no she wouldn't, yes she would. In the end, she had agreed to keep her lucrative modeling work going, and live with him at weekends and holidays only. It seemed a perfect compromise.
"What's that?" Emmy asked, watching her fiddle with a piece of blue foam.
"A toe separator. Do you want me to get you one?"
"I don't paint my toenails."
"So I noticed. Maybe you should start."
Niall waved his cigarette in the air. "No, no, no, stop. A toe separator is not an essential for simple living."
"It is in my book."
"Well, your book is too feckin' high-maintenance by half."
"Speak English, sweetie. Pass me a candle. I need more light."
"Okay, Sita. Here's me doing a what if. Which single thing that went wrong that morning conspired to save us?" he persisted. He was going to have the train-crash conversation again if it killed him.
"The milk tanker!" all four others shouted, as they'd done a hundred times, but even as they did, the image of the colossal steel beast, nose in hedge and tank skewed across the narrow country lane, still shook them.
"It should never have tried to pull over to let us pass."
"It was my fault. I made our cabbie flash his lights. I remember asking him."
"Ah, you're all obsessed with the milk tanker. That's just because it was a big fecker. What about all the other little twists and turns?"
"Five minutes, tops. The milk tanker delayed us by fifteen," Jonathan said.
Emmy went to fill his glass but his hand planed automatically over the rim.
"Go on, you're not going anywhere, not for three months, anyway," she coaxed.
He relented by showing her an inch with his fingers as the discussion rolled on, and only Sita saw him rub his chest with the flat of his hand. It didn't make any difference how many times she told him the tightness was just stress. The one shelf that ran round the crumbling walls of their antiquated bathroom upstairs was already piled with his mail-order vitamins and health supplements.
"Except they weren't the crucial minutes," Niall argued, dragging on his cigarette as if his life depended on it. Sita realized Jonathan had been rubbing his chest in anticipation of smoke. "How many times has your plane left late and made up the delay during the flight? It wasn't the milk tanker. It's too obvious."
"Why did it jack-knife, then?"
"Because the roads were wet, for feck's sake."
"Niall, that's three fucks in the last two minutes," Kat pointed out. "That shows you think you're losing the argument."
"Or that I'm frighteningly sexually prolific."
"Hello? This is your live-in partner speaking."
Emmy wanted to laugh. They'd only known each other for nine weeks.
"Not anymore, you're not."
"I will be when it suits me. That's the beauty of a recreational relationship."
"A recreational relationship. Didn't you know? That's what our sort of arrangement is called."
"By who? Cosmo feckin politan?"
"I wouldn't bother finding work, Sita. Just go out and buy a swear box."
"Actually," Niall said, "I think one of the rules for the next three months should be that we use the word 'feck' a bit more."
"You couldn't use it a bit more. You'd never finish a sentence."
"It's very therapeutic, the linguistic combination of an 'f' followed by a hard stop. And you know, we could all do worse than give way to the occasional feck."
Niall winked at Kat. Jonathan raised his eyebrows at Sita. Emmy looked at the floor.
"That's so eighties," Kat said. "Hasn't anyone told you no one cares about the word anymore? It's lost its power to shock. It doesn't sound cool these days, it just sounds goddamn rude. And you must try harder not to do it in front of the children. Don't let him do it in front of the children, Emmy."
"I don't," Niall said.
"You did today."
"Come back and sit on my lap, you bossy tart."
"My nails aren't dry yet."
"So, had we already missed the train by the time the cabbies made their detour?"
"Why did Sara get married on a Sunday not a Saturday like normal people? When else would we be busting a gut to get back to London on a Monday morning, for God's sake?"
"Why didn't we drive?"
"And if we weren't meant to be dead, how come we booked those train seats in the first place?"
"That's what I mean," Niall said, flinging his arms into the air and letting his Camel cigarette drop its ash behind him. "Which link mattered? Which one was it that saved us?"
"The milk tanker!" they all shouted again, as he leaned back in his chair and inhaled again, grinning through the smoke like the devil's favorite advocate.
"Right," Emmy said, banging her hands on the table, "that's it. That really was the last time, okay? The last."
She supposed they had to go through it all again, to mark the remarkable just one more time. Eight weeks ago, the prospect of an evening like this hadn't existed in so much as a flicker of a candle flame. Eight weeks ago, it was going to be just her and Maya. But then, of course, her fairy godfather had made them miss the train.
Prodding a puddle of freshly spilt wax, she reminded herself that the candles were hers. So were the candlesticks, the drawers and cabinets she'd found them in, the tables and sideboards — and even the bricks and mortar, for that matter. Or they would be for the next three months. That was the deal. If things worked out the way they should, Bodinnick would eventually belong to them all. The finer details of who would own what stake rested with the sale of Sita and Jonathan's home in Fulham, but the general idea was that they would probably end up owning half, Emmy would own the other half, and Niall would buy into her share with whatever he thought he could afford, which might be anything between ten and two hundred thousand, depending on the state of his wine-importing business. It was a loose arrangement, to say the least, and that was the way she liked it. The small print didn't interest her. What was hers was theirs.
Excerpted from Eggshell Days by Rebecca Gregson. Copyright © 2002 Rebecca Gregson. 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A wonderful madcap story of a London woman (Emmy) who inherits an old and somewhat decrepit manse in Cornwall. She, in the company of several friends (and their children) quit their jobs, let go their flats and homes and all set out to refurbish and live at the place in Cornwall. The main thrust of the story, however, is: who is the father of Emmy's daughter? This little story is very funny and captivating (with really interesting characters, both the ones in the main storyline and those who pop in and out) and quite poignant at times. I thought I knew who the father was throughout, but was found ignorant by the end. The kids in the story are quite interesting themselves and have their own little goings on. I quite liked this book. It was very good reading for a rainy day.
I have never written an online review before, but felt compelled just now, as there is only one other review for this fantastic book! I thought the character development was amazing and the relationships within such a close group of friends were interesting, believable and honest. I am an avid reader and this book stands out in my mind as one of my favorites over the last few years. Don't miss it.
Maybe it was partly because the characters were British but I had a hard time understand some of the terms used in the story. I also had a hard time really getting into this book, there didn't seem to be a lot of character development.