One minute Deborah Curtis’s husband, Julian, is alive, a handsome figure leaving their rented house in an African principality, kissing his wife goodbye in the early morning sunshine. The next moment he’s dead, the ground shaking in the aftermath of a deafening explosion. Months later, Deborah is still recovering from the assassination of her spouse and the collateral damage to her own body and soul.
Bestselling author Judith Lamb is living with her partner of eight years in an isolated farmhouse on the Cornish moors, struggling with her latest novel. Her American lover, the tall, statuesque Joanna Verdura, is currently on assignment in Seneca. After reading about a diplomat killed by a car bomb meant for someone else, Joanna feels a strong compulsion to visit the dead man’s widow. After all, Deborah is Judith’s younger sister.
Although she has been estranged from Judith for years, Deborah doesn’t resist when Joanna whisks her off to Cornwall to grieve in peace, far from the political spotlight. But Joanna has unleashed a demon: the sisters’ buried past. As old unresolved wounds bleed into the present, a history of abuse comes to light. Forced to confront painful memories, the women’s secrets and lies collide in a shattering, unbearably moving climax in a cat sanctuary.
From the bestselling author of Notes from an Exhibition, told in the very different voices of its three female characters, The Cat Sanctuary is an ultimately redemptive tale about family and forgiveness and the love and steadfast devotion needed to find grace.
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About the Author
Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester, before attending Oxford University. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End. One of the United Kingdom’s best-loved novelists, his recent works include A Perfectly Good Man, The Whole Day Through, and the Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and the Independent Booksellers’ Novel of the Year award. To find out more about Patrick and his work, visit www.galewarning.org.
Read an Excerpt
The Cat Sanctuary
By Patrick Gale
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Patrick Gale
All rights reserved.
Deborah was waving Julian off to work when he was murdered. At any other time it would have embarrassed her deeply to make such a display — she usually took a leisurely breakfast in bed with yesterday's newspaper — but the Foreign Secretary and his wife were staying. They were visiting Seneca for four, long days.
'You really must make more of an effort,' Julian had insisted. 'Get them to think of us as a team. I know you hate being little wifey but She's the power behind more thrones than his and if we can make the right impression on Her it could just get us out of this dump. It was all thanks to Her that the Maxwells were brought back from Zimbabwe last year.'
So Deborah had played a lot of bridge, had kept quiet about her desultory work for the poverty action group and had affected a tireless fascination with Lady Coltrane's narrow-minded reminiscences of pre-War Kenya. Last night, she had thrown a party, after closely supervising the assembly of ten, broad trays of exquisite canapés (left to their own devices the kitchen staff did nameless things with tinned mackerel and sliced bread) and now, in full view of their breakfasting guests, she was waving Julian off to work.
The car was intended to ferry the Foreign Secretary to a meeting with some local government officers, but he had overslept after drinking too much the night before, so it was hastily decided that Julian should take the first car while the chauffeur made a second one ready.
'Bye darling,' Julian said, kissing her cheek.
'Bye,' she said back. 'Don't forget those medical people are coming for lunch a bit early because of Bill and Diana's helicopter jaunt.'
He kissed her other cheek, winked to show his approval and left her, sun-dappled, on the porch. She watched the chauffeur close the door for him and walk out of sight. At the breakfast table, Diana Coltrane laughed immoderately at something someone had just said. The engine started, Deborah waved, Julian smiled and the car had barely begun to pull away when it exploded.
The noise sounded nothing like the full-throated roar of explosions in films, but that may have been because Deborah was standing close enough to have her hearing temporarily scrambled. The rush of air threw her backwards onto the hall rug. For several hideously drawn-out seconds she lay there, quite deaf, watching pieces of Julian and the consulate car slap down onto the drive and surrounding flowerbeds. Then she realised that her mouth and eyes were filling with blood so she lay back, shutting them. As yet she felt no pain. There was only the irritating ringing in her ears. Hands, rough with panic, touched her, arranged her legs and slid a cushion beneath her head. A cold, damp towel dabbed at her face. She tried to open her eyes again but they filled with blood as swiftly as it was wiped away. Behind the ringing, she made out the thin, old-fashioned ding-a-ling of the town ambulance ('A gift from the people of Bradford shortly before Independence,' she felt she should tell her guests). From nearby came the similarly reduced phut of gunfire.
'That'll be the chauffeur,' she thought. 'But no. If Coltrane hadn't drunk so much, the chauffeur would have died with ... Or perhaps not. Perhaps he was prepared to die for the cause or whatever and couldn't believe his luck when Julian said not to ... No? Then ...'
Someone laid fingers on her lips and she realised she had been thinking aloud.
'Hush dear,' cooed Diana Coltrane half a mile away. 'Here's Doctor. Hold still now.'
Now she felt pain; sharp stabs as tweezers teased things out of her skin.
'Julian!' she shouted and tried to push everyone away. 'Julian!' Hands held her down and she felt a pinprick in her arm. 'Daddy! Stop them!' she pleaded. 'I have a thing about knives and needles,' she told them. 'Anything sharp makes me faint. Ask anyone. Ask Cook. Ask Judith.' The drug worked fast. The ringing in her ears was swiftly exchanged for cotton wool. 'Judith!' she called faintly and passed out.CHAPTER 2
Judith was working. When she had lived alone, which felt so long ago, she had always worked in bed. She had found that, with her mind focused on her writing, her body became utterly still, a prey to marauding draughts. Working in bed with a quilt about her bony shoulders had seemed the obvious solution. Now that her bachelor pad in Clapham had been almost entirely abandoned for the connubial farmhouse in Cornwall, now that her days and nights were shared, this practice had been abandoned as an unjust intrusion of labour into the realm of love. Her jealously guarded savings were accordingly broken into for the conversion of the hayloft of the old stone-built barn. The latter still housed a chestnut mare, hay bales, a sit-up-and-beg lawn-mower and Judith's senile but faithful Morris 1000. However a handrail had been attached to make the stone steps which ran up the outside wall at one end rather less perilous in damp weather and the overhead space they led to had been transformed into Judith's white-painted domain, sleeker and better-heated than any room in the main house. A capacious chaise longue and exquisite patchwork quilt had been tracked down for her in local sales and she found that, with a few adjustments, her old sickroom trolley was still ideal for supporting her word processor at a comfortable height over her travel-blanketed knees.
The windows they had let into the entire length of the sloping ceiling would normally have given her a view of sweeping moorland spotted with rain-hewn granite lumps and, closer to, a gathering of wind-bent trees. A flock of bedraggled sheep usually sheltered beside one of several ancient dry-stone walls, green with moss and navelwort, which had defined a field before tumbling once too often. Today there was no view. The nearest villages, Treneglos to one side and Martyrstow to the other, were set high above the rest of Cornwall, and the house was a further steep climb above them so, when local weather forecasts contained, as they had today, the dread word 'overcast', she wound up the blinds to find a shifting blanket of cloud inches from her nose. The thin winter sunlight lent this moisture wall an eerie luminosity, as headlamps did mist. Marooned, laden with sodden fleece, sheep bleated out their melancholic code, lost to the world and lost to each other. They were quite invisible from where Judith sat but she could distinguish a few long-horned, half-wild cattle and the occasional utterly wild pony as dark shadows looming in and out of the shifting grey.
She turned back to her word processor and read yet again the little she had managed to write that morning.
'Edgar sat at the kitchen table for an hour after his mother had taken her hot milk back to bed. He sat listening to the familiar midnight tickings and creaks of his childhood home; cooling radiators, contracting woodwork, subtly settling masonry and the sporadic sigh and rattle of wind in the soot-caked chimney above the range. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, his eyes had come to rest, then lingered, on the cutlery drawer. His head felt pleasantly empty of thoughts.'
Judith picked through the words with a critical frown, tapping on the screen's edge with a sharpened pencil she kept uselessly to hand out of superstition.
As was so often the case in her writing, a setting proffered by her imagination as a wholly original confection was transforming, as she etched in its details, into somewhere she knew and so could believe in. Brisk and no-nonsense as a nurse, her imagination was plundering long-abandoned storerooms in her memory. She had sat at Edgar's kitchen table. She knew every knot on its surface, was familiar with the jam jar covers, candles and tea cosies in its drawers, could recall the exact feel of a nailhead protruding from one of its legs which her infant fingers had nervously worried beneath the tablecloth through countless teatimes. She could catch in an instant the precise sensation of its soap-scrubbed deal on her cheek. If she concentrated she could conjure up a compound memory: the greasy feel of a Latin textbook beneath her hand indivisible from the smell of the pencil she was chewing and the weak, warning tone in which her mother said, 'Ten more minutes and Daddy'll be home. I want those books out of sight, your hair brushed and for heaven's sake get that ink off your hands before he sees it!'
She touched one of her hands on the knuckles of the other and felt again the furious scrubbing of a pumice stone on skin already raw from cold.
In a sudden flurry of keys, as though she were trying to take herself by surprise, she added,
'Edgar rose at last, tugged open the drawer and picked out the long, large-toothed knife they used for sawing frozen meat.'
Startled, she deleted the sentence almost as soon as she had typed in its full stop. Then she typed it back in, biting her lip as she looked in vain for some crucial alteration that might suggest itself. She pushed the sickroom trolley aside and paced to the farthest window which she swung wide open, taking a blast of cold dampness full in her face.
The situation bore all the unfamiliar hallmarks of a creative crisis. The twelve novels that had brought her critical recognition, two niggardly but prestigious prizes and this hayloft had done so in spite of, and quite possibly because of, the failure of their central characters to take any direct action before they absolutely had to. There was no shortage of action around them. People stole their wives or drowned their husbands, fortunes were made and lost, adolescents attempted suicide and children were trapped in hotel fires. On one memorable occasion, which resulted in a prolonged correspondence with several none-too-gentlemanly farmers, Judith had even connived at the devouring of an inoffensive baby by an outraged sow. It took four to five hundred pages of impulsive gestures and inhuman brutality on the part of author and supporting cast, however, to goad Judith's heroes or heroines out of their philosophical deliberations and into the arena of conflict. Whilst her grasp of psychological truths and eye for fresh dilemma had saved her work from becoming formulaic, its structural pattern was yet predictable enough to provide a source of security to her loyal readers and an easy target for critics, baited by the impotence her success had visited upon them. And now she found herself barely five chapters into a new, still untitled work, and the hero, a moderately well-adjusted solicitor (an idealisation, she began to suspect, of how Judith liked to remember herself in her early twenties), was arming himself against his mother with a lethal weapon.
Judith closed the window again, switched off the word processor because it was giving her a headache and reached for her notebook. She wrapped herself back in her quilt and blanket then turned to the pages where she had mapped out the terrible, often amusing chain of events to which Edgar was only meant to respond with direct action in the novel's last chapters. She looked for a way of talking him back from the dangerous step he was taking, all too aware that the pursuit was as feeble as a policewoman's attempt to sound understanding when talking to a would-be suicide through a loud-hailer.
Judith met her reflected gaze in the word processor screen. When she first won a prize, a Sunday magazine had sent a famous, titled photographer to bring back her likeness. He had cleverly pictured her reflected in a screen full of the recently published text. A signed print of the photograph hung on the wall behind her now. It showed her anxious, oval face, framed by her glossy but irredeemably brown hair and seemingly marked by stripes of green-glowing prose as with war paint. Understanding what the photographer had been at and conniving with him she had moved the position of the text on the screen so that the pronouncement, 'I hate you. More than words can say' ran cleanly across her forehead. An unkind friend of her mother's, remarking on her wise childhood habit of sitting quietly out of harm's way, had dubbed her Puss-in-the-Corner. The nickname was duly borne to school by her disloyal sister where it became Pussy, Katkins and, for moments of rank spite, Mewdith. She had long since removed herself from spite and disloyalty but she still liked to sit quietly and unremarked in corners. Her brown hair had been shot through with a streak of dramatic grey since the photographer's visit but something vaguely feline remained about her face; in the largeness of her eyes and the delicacy of her otherwise unremarkable nose.
She scratched her nose to break the spell, sighed and lay back with her eyes closed, letting the notebook fall to her lap. This was only happening because Joanna, her fount of sanity, her rock of strength, had expressed a sudden desire to take a trip on her own. Briefly, because the luxury was perilous, she allowed herself the sensation of red hair tumbling thickly at her touch, of breast-warmed cashmere brushing her lips. In all her career she had only once found her creativity blocked and that was seven years ago, when she let Joanna slip away for a whole month of long-begged solitude in London.
She opened her eyes. She never wore watches — something about her made them stop or even go backwards — so with the house buried in cloud she had no way of telling the time. Snatching at an excuse to escape from this contemplation of her failure, she decided that it must be nearly time to feed the cats. She rose, turned out the light and wrapped herself in Joanna's mackintosh which she had successfully demanded as ransom. Even with the cuffs rolled up it all but swamped her, a stern if comforting reminder that not all slight, brown, wood nymphs were lucky enough to count Juno as even an absent admirer. She dug for the keys in its pockets, locked the door behind her, then climbed up into Joanna's Land Rover. She scrabbled in the damp clutter that strewed the shelf above the dashboard and found a piece of clotted cream fudge she had given up for lost. Chewing, she started the engine and drove across the cattle grid and onto the lane to Martyrstow. The fog lamps caught the Satanic eyes of sheep and before long, as she edged into the cloud, were the only sign of her presence on the vast expanse of moor.CHAPTER 3
Joanna had never suffered from the heat. After Cornwall, Seneca had been a surprise, certainly. Cornish heat — intense by English standards — was softened by Atlantic breezes, but Senecan breezes had nothing to cool them. The half-finished Hotel Continental had air conditioning and, were it not for the views it afforded of a blue-domed mosque and a camel market, might have been any Hotel Continental in Europe. The blast of heat that enveloped her when she stepped out onto the street had nothing European about it, however, and she revelled in it. She had headed straight for the teeming commercial area on her first morning there and bought several floaty, ethnic dresses. She enjoyed the way the hot air swirled through them as she walked. She had long since dressed beyond or outside fashion, having reached an age when she doubted the wisdom of any violent external change, but there was still a pleasing holiday piquancy to swanning around in clothes nobody would be seen dead in at home.
Her original plan had been to take a fortnight to pursue selfish, solitary pleasure, simply to prove herself still capable of it, but photographers take cameras on vacation with them like everyone else. For months she had been photographing little but restful phenomena of her Cornish surroundings such as tree bark, hedgerows, ferns and dry-stone walls, so the exuberance and colour of even a strongly Muslim community had been more temptation than her high-principled, American respect for leisure could withstand. Forced to admit at last that her work was her chief pleasure, Joanna had ignored the blandishments of swimming pool and camel ride to track down interesting subjects.
Almost at once she had latched on to the local children, most of whom seemed to be set to work. She had taken pictures of street vendors at first (each of whom expected to be paid for the favour), then of a cruelly deformed little boy who had become a carpenter, courtesy of his dextrous feet.
'Children?' she had asked him. 'Do you know any other children who work?'
Excerpted from The Cat Sanctuary by Patrick Gale. Copyright © 1990 Patrick Gale. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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