The only child of eccentric academics who never married, Laura Lewis was an undergrad at Oxford when she met Ben Patterson. They shared an idyllic few months of passion, only to go their separate ways when Ben ended their relationship.
Two decades later, Laura is a self-employed accountant with a history of unfulfilling liaisons with married men, her adult life “mapped out in relationships not achievements.” She leaves Paris to return to England, determined to keep her osteoporosis-stricken mother from the indignities of an institution by caring for her at home. At a hospital in historic Winchester, Laura runs into her former love. A onetime HIV consultant, Ben has also come home to be a caregiver to his gay younger brother with mosaic Down syndrome. Ben is now married to Chloe, a former model he doesn’t love. In spite of the obstacles against them, Laura and Ben rekindle their affair.
The Whole Day Through takes place over twenty-four hours, while simultaneously spanning decades to tell Laura and Ben’s story. As the narrative threads move inexorably toward each other, past and present merge in a haunting collage of memory, mortality, missed chances, and the obligations and regrets of love. This novel from the bestselling British author of Notes from an Exhibition was a Sainsbury’s Book Club pick in the UK.
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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 Whole Day Through
By Patrick Gale
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2009 Patrick Gale
All rights reserved.
EARLY MORNING TEA
Laura had been awake for several minutes before she was aware that there was a problem. She always drew her curtains back just before climbing into bed because she preferred waking early and slowly to daylight than with sudden violence to an alarm. (It was one of the few pleasures of her self-employment as an accountant that, in winter months, she simply started her days later.) So she lay there, entirely comfortable, gently reassembling her sense of where she was and why, catching sweet wafts of the Sombreuil rose that half-obscured her view of the garden and listening to the ravenous cheeping of the blue tit nestlings in the box beside her windowsill. She took in the unsatisfactorily emollient American novel she persisted in reading, then the purple bloom left inside the wineglass she had brought to bed. And her comfort diminished as furniture and pictures reminded her that she was no longer in Paris but in Winchester, that this was not her room, at least not yet fully her room, but the spare room in her mother's house.
She had just observed, with an unvoiced sigh, that she had been staying in the house long enough now for such a distinction to smack of cowardice, when she realized that the murmuring in the background to the blue tits' noise was not, as she had thought, a collared dove, but Mummy calling her name from the garden.
She swore softly to herself, seeing now that it was still only six-thirty, and went to peer between the rose branches. Then she swore again, less softly, and hurried out, pulling on her dressing gown as she went.
Mummy didn't see her coming and was still calling up at her bedroom window as she emerged, keeping her voice low in an effort not to draw attention from further afield. She was sitting, heavily, inside a rather pretty pink-flowered leptospermum, naked, naturally, and clutching her secateurs in one hand and a Fabian Society mug in the other. She had managed to lose her balance without spilling all the tea and took an absent minded gulp of it as she awaited rescue.
The tableau might have encapsulated the sad decline of a brilliant mind, the pathetic geriatric dementia of the eminent virologist known to her students and peers as Professor Jellicoe. Her mind seemed as sharp as ever, however; only her limbs, not her wits, were failing and her nudity was not a symptom but a decades-old private habit.
Laura's late father had introduced her to naturism early in their relationship and Harriet Jellicoe – Mrs Lewis, as he jokingly called her in conversation with Laura – had practised with a convert's zeal ever since.
'How long have you been stuck out here?' Laura asked her.
'About an hour.'
'It's all right. I was only just starting to get a bit cold and only because I'm not moving about.'
'Just couldn't get up on my own. Bodies are a bore!' She continued chatting as Laura offered both arms, cupping Mummy's elbows as Mummy did the same back, sparing them both wrist strain. 'I'd just made myself a cuppa when I saw how that shrubby stock needed cutting back before it set seed then something must have distracted me, a bird or something, and down I went.'
'Come on. Upsadaisy.'
'You'll simply have to put me into a home,' Mummy said as they made their halting progress back indoors.
'We've been through that.'
'You're freezing! Come along. Back to bed for a bit or another cup of tea.'
'More tea, I think. Then I want to get back to that article on bluetongue.'
There was an elegant dressing gown, in sea-green cashmere, kept on the back of the kitchen door in case of unexpected visitors. Laura briskly slipped it over her mother's arms and shoulders and fastened its belt. When she turned back from filling the kettle and lighting a gas ring, Mummy had instinctively shrugged it off.
'Not cold,' she said as Laura made to pick it up. 'Don't fuss so.'
Laura let the garment lie and watched her mother drop violently onto the ancient armchair where she spent much of her day.
Out-manoeuvred into irritable retirement, then imprisoned there by disability, Professor Jellicoe was still able to feel she kept her hand in, as she put it, by two or three compassionate younger colleagues and editors who ensured she was sent articles and books to review. Though largely sedentary, her days were therefore sometimes as full, if not as fulfilled, as when she had headed a research team of her own.
Laura's father, Mr Lewis, had been blithely low-wattage, content always to take second place, and Laura had recently recognized in her own thoughts and behaviour around Mummy distinct traces of his only occasionally mocking respect for her mother's innate superiority. Like him she had become her mother's attendant vestal. Hips, ankles, neck, all might fail in time but were somehow less important than the flame of intellect they supported, which must still be fed and protected for the benefit of all.
This baggily floral throne, with laptop and telephone, printer and Keiller's marmalade jar full of pens and pencils crammed onto a coffee table close at hand, had effectively become Harriet Jellicoe's office, a mahogany invalid table on little wheels, her desk. Assessing the situation soon after moving in, Laura had raised its seat with a stout layer of upholstery grade foam to make it easier for her to sink into but still Mummy could only get out of the thing unassisted by dropping a garden kneeler in front of her, rolling forward to land with her knees on that then clambering her way back to a standing position with the help of other bits of furniture. Before long the chair would have to be replaced with an electrified one that could gently let her down or tip her back out. Laura had brought back brochures from an eager salesman and tried to sell the idea on the basis of how comfortable such chairs were in full reclining mode but Mummy was still powerfully resistant.
'That nasty velour would be sweaty on my skin,' she said. 'I'd never sit in it. It would be a waste of money.'
So for now they made do with the old chair, the garden kneeler and, in case of emergencies, an old china potty discreetly masked by a pile of back copies of Journal of Virology (and, increasingly, Country Life).
'I pissed in that tea tree,' Mummy observed as Laura set her fresh tea beside her. 'But I don't suppose any harm will come of it. Surprisingly itchy.'
'Just be glad it wasn't a berberis.'
'I'd never plant berberis,' she said hotly, as though the suggestion were demeaning.
'I know,' Laura said. 'I was teasing. Sorry.'
Both her mother's gardens had been free of thorns or plants like rue or euphorbia which gave rise to rashes. She made a single exception for roses and these were rarely of the thorniest types and were trained well away from paths or sitting areas.
Laura set the digestives tin on the trolley at Mummy's elbow. 'I'm going back up for a bit,' she said. 'Back soon.'
Mummy had already gone back to her laptop and the latest article for which she was writing a peer review and gave no acknowledgement so Laura slipped out to retrieve the day's newspaper from the big wooden letter box on the back of the garden gate and took that and her own tea back to bed, leaving her to work in peace.
Before all this, years ago it seemed to her now, Laura had been living in Paris in a tiny apartment between the Rue de la Roquette and the Rue du Chemin Vert which she rented very reasonably in return for minor caretaking duties in a grander apartment three floors below which belonged to a largely absentee American ex of hers and his complacent wife.
Whenever fleeting contact with some successful contemporary prompted her to self-analysis, Laura perceived with a flush of feminist shame that her adult life, her life since university, had been mapped out in relationships not achievements. She had always been in work, never gone hungry, which was success of a sort, but work had never been more than a source of rent and food for her and it was a succession of men, not appointments, that came to mind when she pictured her life story.
Already self-employed for some years, in her own peculiar accountancy field, she had moved to Paris at thirty in flight from the aftershocks of an especially misguided relationship with an alcoholic solicitor. In the deluded confidence of love she had believed at first she could save him from himself. When he realized her third attempt to break off with him had succeeded, he tried to take his life. Violently cured of delusion, she was driven away less by any terror of him, though she did fear meeting him without preparation, than by the hurtful condemnation of mutual friends who could not understand the necessity of her not even visiting him in hospital.
In a tiny, rented bedsit with no natural light, she licked her wounds and unexpectedly recovered her self-esteem with Graydon, an American banker who favoured the same little café she did for breakfast and took her on as a sort of challenge because she initially despised him, quite irrationally, for not being French. For nearly a year they had an immensely enjoyable affair, all lust and admiration with courtesy standing in for love.
The affair petered out just when he appeared to be establishing her as an official mistress. His Paris contract was considerably improved on renewal so he bought two apartments in the same building on the fringes of the Marais and persuaded her to move into the smaller one, little more than an extended chambre de bonne under the eaves. Even had regularity and domesticity not dimmed their ardour, Graydon brought a subtle, if risky, end to their involvement by introducing Laura to his wife. She liked the wife instinctively, as he surely guessed she would, and gradually realized she preferred lunching with her to sleeping with him. She stayed on in the tiny flat, however, because she still liked them both and they were away so often they needed a caretaker less recalcitrant towards Americans, and with better English, than the building's concierge, someone to take in parcels, oversee decorators or to welcome occasional visitors who rented the bigger apartment in their longer absences.
She had spoken to Mummy regularly – far more so since her widowing – and arranged annual visits in either direction but had maintained a coolly loving distance for the most part, which had suited them both. Mummy wrote, gardened, attended conferences and was in every way the independent, elderly parent of every adult child's dreams. But then she had tripped on a piece of uneven pavement or slipped on a leaf and found herself in hospital with a broken hip.
Only now, far too late in life for much useful treatment, did it emerge that she had advanced osteoporosis. This seemed especially cruel since it was usually the scourge of earth mothers, not mothers-of-one. A brace of surgeons pronounced her an unsuitable case for a hip-replacement so her broken bone was merely pinned – a repair that had left her wary and, it seemed, increasingly crippled by pain. When she broke the ankle on the other leg, this time in her thickly screened garden, she lay there overnight and for several hours into a drizzly morning before someone heard her shouting for help.
At that point the permanent return from Paris became inevitable. Arriving at the hospital, Laura had faced a thinly veiled inquisition from a social worker. It wasn't hard to explain how she could be so sure her mother's unsuitable lack of clothes had nothing to do with senile confusion – given her upbringing, Laura was long past embarrassment – but she could tell the young man disbelieved her or was too easily disgusted, for all his training, to find the idea acceptable. She faced a similar problem when she looked into the possibility of retirement housing, even on a short-term basis. Even had Mummy found the prospect bearable, she could not have borne even the most kindly imprisonment if it meant having to wear clothes all day. And Laura doubted whether even Nordic countries had old peoples' homes or sheltered housing where the residents could do the weeding with nothing on.
The facts were cruel in their simplicity: Mummy needed a carer, no one but Laura could fill the role and, as she could do her work anywhere and had no ties, there was no good reason why she should not move in. Not that she had moved in. Not properly. Most of her boxed-up belongings remained stacked at the back of the garage, a shadowy and increasingly damp promise that the situation might yet change.
She lost her temper so rarely that the sensation was entirely unfamiliar and felt like the onset of some tumultuous fit or sickness. She was incapable of violence but the social worker, a waxy-haired boy in a shiny suit, was eminently slappable, not least because of the way his intonation rose at the end of every sentence. As he asked his unnecessarily personal questions, he spoke entirely in second-hand phrases so that it was tempting to assume his thoughts were not his own either. She focused on getting through his little grilling as quickly as possible, resisting the impulse to take issue with the necessity of his knowing what she earned or what her mother's marital status was.
'She's single,' she told him.
'Divorced, is that?'
'No. Single. My parents never married. And my father's dead.'
She watched his fat fist grasp his pen to form the word widow. Strictly speaking, an unmarried woman couldn't be a widow, but she let it pass. All that mattered was to get out of his cubby-hole of an office and out of the hospital's stifling atmosphere and, in her indignation, she heard herself telling him things he hadn't even asked and which only taxed his limited understanding and further delayed her escape.
When she finally broke free, having had to agree to an inspection of her mother's house for tripping hazards and other risks that might be modified, she felt her unvoiced anger breaking out at last as a flush on her face and a tremor in her hands and jaw and a sense that everything around her – the visitors with their reused plastic bags, the too chirpy porters, the nurses sullen with exhaustion, the amateur art lining the corridor along which she strode – seemed an affront to her senses.
She had picked up a piece of gravel in her shoe when passing between buildings, which was suddenly digging sharply into her heel. She had paused to pick it out when some man called out her name. She looked around her but took in no faces in the crowd. Then she realized that of course no one knew her here and she had simply overheard a stranger calling to a different Laura, and this irritated her further.
'Laura?' he called again and she turned and saw a handsome man in a suit who was clearly addressing her.
She didn't recognize him at first. In fact she fleetingly mistook him for a BBC foreign correspondent, and wondered how he knew her. He hadn't lost all his hair or become immensely fat but they had not seen each other for over twenty years and the boy had become a man. Hair she remembered as chestnut was now turning grey. But as soon as he smiled she recognized him from the little gap between his front teeth and the way just one cheek dimpled. She recognized, too, the modest way he then gave his name as though she was struggling to place him. She imagined he had a full minute in which to place her before calling out to her.
'Of course!' She laughed. 'It's seeing you so suddenly and out of context,' and they hugged and he kissed her on either cheek then laughed as she automatically moved for a third. 'Oh my God!'
'I know,' he said, pulling back to take her in. 'Twenty years. How did that happen?'
'Stop it,' she said. 'I'm ancient,' but he ignored her, still staring, smiling.
For a second or two they just stared, smiling self-consciously, as each took in the effects of all that time on the other's face. The longer she looked, the more recognizable he became, as though all that time were suddenly nothing. All that mess, the jobs and places and stupid, pointless relationships she hadn't known were pointless at the time; it sprang together like a stretched band suddenly released. Following hard on her anger with the social worker, the sensation left her lightheaded, as if drunk, and she giggled nervously.
'I'd heard you lived in Paris,' he said.
'Well, you're supposed to be in London,' she countered, walking on and drawing him with her. 'I'm visiting my mother. Well, looking after her really.'
'Broken ankle and a touch of exposure,' she said flippantly. 'General crumble. You know the sort of thing.'
'I'm sorry. I didn't know she lived here.'
'She didn't. I mean, when I ... when we were ...'
Excerpted from The Whole Day Through by Patrick Gale. Copyright © 2009 Patrick Gale. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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