When Frances was twenty-two, she was drifting, scraping by giving English lessons in Mexico, when she met up with a glamorous group of vacationing Americans staying in a mansion on a private beach. Two decades later in rural England, she is settled into married life. Then she discovers a love letter from a younger woman addressed to her husband—almost at the same time that she learns that she’s facing a life-threatening illness.
As her contented existence begins to unravel and she tries to decide whether to confront her husband about his infidelity, Frances finds herself haunted by the memory of her heady desert encounter with the charmed circle of the Severance family. That summer in 1976 seemed, until now, like another lifetime. As she recalls this long buried episode from her past, she is forced to face for the first time her own role in an illicit romance—and the betrayal and tragedy that marked its ending.
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The midwinters here are never pale. Paleness suggests translucence, and our winters are swampy, no hint of crisp blue overhead. Just now, near Christmas, there is gray rain and a slip of mud at every doorway, and I am thinking a great deal about death.
The season, its associations with joy and birth, denies me the opportunity to speak of such a smothering topic, despite the circumstances, despite my hope, which is to die, softly and soon. Of course even once the fresh twelve months is upon us, I will not express this wish, not in words, at least not to Phillip or Chloe. I suspect, anyway, that they know and that it is this knowledge that hushes them sometimes and hurries them from my presence, though they never confront me with it, or anything else. I am fragile now, as glass, in their eyes. No matter the rage of my thoughts.
I remember the pain, the first that signaled this ending. I remember it quite vividly; it came not long after last Christmas on a day as dull as this one. Evidently we remember things because they are anchored in some way, but anchoring is a weighty concept, and I was, just then, in the grip of something shrill ... panic. I was reading a letter.
The letter was signed Josee, like that, with an ee. I knew who Josee was, but the ee fixated me, since it signaled so clearly the age of the signer, until the pain interrupted and shook my concentration for a half beat. Nobody over forty is called Josee with an ee, are they? Though of course, soon enough, that must change. As I said, I knew who Josee was, so her youth was already familiar to me, and had seemed, in that different context, unremarkable, but at that moment it glared, suddenly scarlet. I stared at her signature — fat and a little wild — for a few more unwinding moments, though it was the line above it that held the real clout, and then left off the slow distracted pat that my left hand had set up at my midline, the pain having receded into what doctors call "discomfort."
I folded the letter and put it back in its envelope. And I put the envelope back into the drawer of my husband's desk, Phillip's desk, where I had found it. Where I had gone looking for it, or something like it — something that would tell me what it had told me.
I will be forty-six years old next July, if I live until then, which I doubt. Almost no age at all if you look at it from a mathematical perspective. To me, though, forty-six seems fairly aged, perhaps because my forty-plus years have afforded me so many lives, this last the most content and therefore the least notable of all. That is, until Josee's letter came, and the discomfort came, and with those things the story and, worse, the reminders of stories past.
* * *
Richard Luke was a scrubbed-looking man, athletic and good-schoolish. His coloring was fair, the kind that tends to redden slightly with sunlight, and his features, though handsome enough, were so even that they rendered him not commonplace exactly, but unexceptional. He looked as though he should be advertising something wholesome. When he asked what had brought me there he dropped the x in Mexico.
"A boyfriend," I replied, shrugging to complete the explanation.
"At heart," I answered.
It was the woman to my left who laughed in response. She was Richard's wife, Patsy, and her magazine-cover lips were tilted into a suggestive curve.
I laughed too.
It was a cocktail party, delicately backlit pink, the temperature clement enough to encourage bare shoulders among the women, and the sounds of ice cubes against glass and water against the stone of a courtyard fountain wove in and out of the easy small talk. The year was 1976, and Mexico was a place where people went looking for a good time.
Six carefree, attractive Americans to whom I had recently been introduced were strung along the happy balcony. Watching them exercising their practiced charm on a few of the better-heeled locals, I decided that they were probably always having a good time.
Patsy Luke quit laughing and drifted toward a woman called Bee Bee Newson. I had caught Bee Bee's eye a little earlier and had felt, just slightly, appraised by her. She was a thin woman with a thin face, though the thinness was offset by the thickness of her hair, which was that ash blonde color that is only ever achieved with professional help. It hung straight and grazed her collarbones and her eyebrows and emphasized the shaded quality of her eyes. They had caught mine only momentarily before she had swung away, leaving me with the rear view of her expensive-looking outfit, white trousers and bright silk top, and a large gold bracelet that evidently annoyed her. She kept raising her arm and shaking her hand to adjust its position on her wrist.
Cornered then by the juxtaposition of a stone pillar and Richard's elbow, I began, a little headily, to flirt with him. I was almost two months out of a dreary breakup from the boyfriend I had mentioned and I was young, and conscious that my white dress showed off my tan.
The flirtation, though, rewarded by too bland an attractiveness, didn't command my energy for long and my happy mood might have faltered had Richard not, with the clamp of an innocently sporty hand on my upper arm, twisted me toward the beaming moon-face of Maria Rodriguez, our hostess.
"Lovely party," he said.
Two high points of thrilled color were set burning in Maria's plump cheeks. She nodded shyly.
At the other end of the balcony Bee Bee's husband, Ned, raised his voice, uniting the gathering. "Nice place you have here, Señor Rodriguez."
Arturo Rodriguez lifted his hand in a dismissive thank-you and looked pleased. There wasn't a nicer house for five hundred miles, except one, which he knew, as he knew everything about that region. There was, some twenty minutes' drive distant, a butter-colored palace, set in high-walled, glamour-tinged privacy above a crystal sand beach. Anyone who ever walked on that beach pointed and looked up.
Arturo liked to know people who spent time in houses like that, so when he had heard that an American couple called the Severances, who now stood not three feet from him, were vacationing there, he had wasted no time in advising Maria that she must give a little party. I was Maria's English teacher, one of the few English speakers she knew. And that was how I had come to be standing among the well-tended foliage and black wrought iron with Richard and Patsy Luke and Ned and Bee Bee Newson, who were in turn guests of the Severances, Mason and Sally. They all looked as if they breakfasted habitually beneath orange trees.
Mason Severance had been slipped to my side by the subtle repositioning that interruptions create at parties. He was a striking man whose silver brown hair had been cropped a little shorter than was fashionable then. In profile he could have graced a gold coin, or a poster for some sort of epic movie. He was thumbing the paper napkin wrapping his empty glass absently. There was something terribly intense about him, apparent in even so slight a gesture.
"Is there much work here," he asked, "for an English teacher?" He made "English teacher" sound exotic.
"Enough," I said. It was a lie. I almost never worked.
"And you like living here?"
"Yes, I do."
"Well, if you find yourself out in our neck of the woods any time feel free to come in and say something charming." Ned said joining us. He was grinning.
I grinned back. He had that quality that children and women warm to, an avuncular combination of humor and kindness. He was thin like his wife, but in him it was rangy. He looked as though he could tap dance, and whistle in tune, and make corned beef hash from a secret recipe. I already liked him.
"Have you seen the house?" Mason asked. It was the kind of house you could refer to in that way, simply. It was famous and had warranted, I'd heard, a five- page spread in House & Garden.
"Only from the beach," I answered, meeting his gaze.
"Come for lunch on Sunday," Sally Severance cut in.
I looked at her directly then, drawn by the command in her voice, but in fact I had been half watching her for much of the evening. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
"Yes," her husband confirmed, "you should."
"Thank you," I replied.
My glass was empty now too. I handed it to Maria's maid and saw, from the corner of my eye, Maria gesturing with a flappy one-handed motion for her employee to circulate with more drinks. But the maid didn't seem to notice, and anyway, the party was fading. In the west the sky's mauve tint had deepened.
Sally shut her eyes briefly, concentrating it seemed on the ice she had taken with the last mouthful of her drink. Then she looked up and, with very little disturbance of her flawless face, shot a glance at her husband. He, immediately catching the message in it, set his own glass down and said in a farewell tone, "Sunday, then."
They left, the six of them, amid much fluttering from Maria and a great deal of hand pumping from Arturo. I stood on the curved steps and watched them go. At the gate Bee Bee tottered slightly in her delicate shoes and almost tripped. Ned steadied her and, turning, waved his free arm and called, "See ya, Frankie."
I smiled. It was the first time anyone had ever called me anything but Frances.
* * *
Many years later, in a rearranged world where I am once again known by the name my parents selected, twenty-seven days elapsed between my discovery of the letter signed Josee and the afternoon that I went to Doctor Griffith's dun-colored office in Barnham with my husband. She had asked us to come together, telephoning me after a routine visit the week before. The pain, though no worse, had been constant, and I had mentioned it to her. You don't think, do you, in those moments that they will change your life? She had sent me for tests.
Even our joint summons did not alert me to what was to come. I was preoccupied with other things, other concerns. Phillip parked the car neatly between the two white lines nearest to the medical center's automated glass doors and then, in the busy waiting area, we sat for a few minutes, side by side on blue vinyl, thinking our own thoughts. Then we were called, and told what we were told. You don't really take it in. Or I didn't, not then.
I have wondered sometimes since what went through Phillip's mind as we listened to those words, smoothly delivered in Dr. Griffith's even tone — a considered weld of concern and reassurance and professionalism — whether perhaps, like me, he felt that he was being punished, though for a recent transgression rather than one long past, as in my case.
Anyway, she said what she said and asked for our questions and then, with clean efficiency, set the great train rolling, the great thundering train that takes over your life when you have the sort of tumor that I have.
In the twilight time between the first set of investigations and the scheduled longer hospital stay for the initial attempt at treatment, cure even, we went to Italy and stayed in a pretty hotel on a pretty lake, its blue blurred to dove at the edges by fog because of the time of year.
On the second morning of our stay I wanted my green scarf. It is the scarf that goes with my cream coat, and I wanted it very much, but I couldn't find it. I turned out all the drawers, neat and organized and almost empty, as they only ever are on holidays, and then I hauled our suitcases out from the back of the wardrobe and searched those. Eventually I realized that I had forgotten the scarf and I sat on the edge of the bed and shook, and then I began to sob.
Phillip said, sitting beside me, "We'll get you a new scarf, darling, a beautiful new scarf." His tears began then too, stifling mine. "Everything will be all right," he said through them.
And I thought, It will. We'll make it all all right. It was not my illness that was uppermost in my mind at the time.
I had told no one about Josee's letter, not even Catherine or Sonia, my closest friends, which is strange I suppose given the amount of talk, and all the rest that marriage and children and life throws up to women, that has passed between us over the years. But I had not been able to face any sort of telling out loud. That would have elicited advice, and judgment, and discussion, until the thing had grown to the point that I'd have had to unload it, confront Phillip, and I did not have the energy. That sort of confrontation demands passion and blood and youth, and mine had been draining from me.
Of course the fact that I had buried the knowledge, and worse the gradual understanding, that my husband was unfaithful did not alter the fact of it. The thing did not disappear, or reform into some new easier-to-handle shape, or even lie dormant, but festered instead, emerging in that kind of sharpness that women have so much more readily at their tongue-tips than men.
Verbally, I had always been mercury to Phillip's molasses and it had been impossible, with what I knew coiled tense inside me, with Josee's letter repeating itself in my head, not to spring at him from time to time, not to sting him a little when the opportunity presented itself, as inevitably it did. We are a man and a woman married twenty years, after all, and finely tuned to each other's failings, no matter how slight. But then, more than once, in the middle of some petty, terrier- tongued attack I was struck by the possibility that my malice would be reported to another with whom novelty and unavailability were still oiling the way for constant, soothing affection. And so I attempted to wrap my razors in cotton wool, alternating my small meannesses with anxious gushes of geniality. It is unfair, isn't it, the way that the betrayed are so often wrenched into behavior that makes them ridiculous, behavior that helps to justify the betrayal?
Phillip was no more evenhanded with me, switching bouts of criticism with displays of affection that smacked of trying too hard, settling often into long, distracted silences. Things had been that way for several months. A sort of electrified space had grown up between us, primed to spark into some ghastly, goalless argument. The kind that leads to nothing but exhaustion and waste.
But then, unexpectedly, there we were, hand in hand on that big bed in the honey-lit Italian hotel room, husband and wife again, a new tie binding us. A new challenge had been added to the bonds that living together and sleeping together and losing people and crying and raising a child together had already wrought. And I decided that it would be possible to banish this other woman, an outsider, a trespasser, both from my mind and from our lives, and to start over.
It was very easy during the soft days that followed to settle on this resolution. They were so pleasant. Full of wine and long lunches and meandering walks along pastel alleyways to the lakeside, all designed not to tax me. We went on ferry rides, Phillip winding my new scarf — the color of the lake beneath — carefully around my neck. A gauzy tenderness descended between us, blunting the edges of our talk and turning our lovemaking gossamer. I believed us to be in one of those fresh-start phases that characterizes long marriages, the links a little delicate, but the purpose shared.
I thought that way until, arriving back in England, I queued to buy tissues in the airport and, turning from the kiosk, saw Phillip speaking on the telephone. He was at one of a quartet of those curved plastic booths that shield only the upper half of the body. He was leaning against the molded exterior and I could see his face. What was it about him, about his manner, that warned me, even across the acres of strangers and hospital-lit serviceable surfaces? His eyes were dipped, almost closed, and his expression was intense, urgent even, utterly engrossed. Suddenly, sensing my gaze perhaps, he lifted his head and hung up, and then he roved his eyes, scanning for mine. On catching them, he sent me a cheerful, childish wave that I felt myself hate him for and he lumbered toward me, battling with the luggage trolley. Then we left together, he leading the way to the taxi stand.
That night we stayed in a hotel in London and ate supper in our room at one of those tables that waiters wheel in and prop up and dress with white linen and vases of candy-colored blooms and foliage that do not belong. As we began Phillip said, "The books are doing very well," and smiled, as if he were awarding me some sort of prize. He has always smiled like that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The View From Here"
Copyright © 2011 Deborah McKinlay.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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
In England, Frances and Phillip have been married for two decades. They have no children of their own, but they raised his daughter Chloe, whose mother abandoned her. In her forties, Frances learns she suffers from a malignant tumor. Stunned Phillip leaves London where he worked on his latest marketing book to return to their rural home to help his beloved wife. However Frances feels betrayed as she has found a romantic letter that ties her husband to his book editor Josee, the London-based editor of his books. Instead of confronting Phillip, Frances follows him to London where she sees him say goodbye to Josee. As she knows she is dying, she looks back to herself in 1976 as a twentyish woman in Mexico eking out a living by teaching English. There she met three wealthy selfish American couples (Patsy and Richard, Bee Bee and Ned, and Sally and Mason) who she initially cannot distinguish between the extender Severance family members. However, she and Mason have an affair; which she rationalized by blaming Sally until she realizes her lover was having sex with Patsy too. As her death looms, Frances relooks at her relationship with Phillip who she knows loved her though he betrayed her. The View from Here is that this is an engaging insightful character study. The story line contrasts Frances as twenty-two years old who believed she could do anything and selfishly went after whatever or whoever she desires without a care for others; vs. the forty something dying Frances who is no long shallow as she has cared for others like Chloe and forgives her beloved Phillip for his indiscretions. The protagonist will have readers ponder whether the sums of a person's good deeds and bad deeds can be accrued like debits and credits on an accounting journal. Harriet Klausner