In this latest extract, Kitty has managed to dupe her employer into offering her an au pair job at Cliff House – the imposing seaside home of her former best friend, who was brutally attacked and left with brain damage. No one at Cliff House is aware of Kitty’s true identity.
The taxi driver navigates a sharp bend near the top of the hill, and there it is. Cliff House. I go into a kind of verbal paralysis. Instead of the avalanche of fancy adjectives you’d expect from a would-be literature graduate, all I can manage is a breathless little “Wow.”
The driver indulges me with a smile as he pulls his Volkswagen to a halt. “Yes, it’s an impressive place, that. The Lenore residence.”
I gaze through the car window at the detached Victorian building, half hidden in dense foliage. A wooden gable here, a shuttered window there, the trellised edge of a balcony peeking round a corner … Our own council semi in Pickering would fit in it four times over. Snatches of the distant sea peek through gaps in the trees. I can’t help but feel that whoever designed this oasis of grandeur fully intended to stir up a drooling envy in all who happen to pass by on an innocent Sunday afternoon’s stroll.
I remain glued to the car seat, clammy with the heat of an airless July afternoon. How can some people be so lucky, living in a place like that? All you’d ever have to do on a bad day would be to fling your bedroom window wide open, take a deep breath, and stare out at that huge expanse of sky and cliffs plunging into sea. The whole panorama looks like it’s been commissioned in heaven.
The driver coughs, no doubt to remind me that it’s time to pay up and bugger off. But then he takes pity on my hesitation and asks, “So you’re planning on staying here long, then?”
I force my head to turn from heaven back to earth. “Just the summer holidays.”
“Friends of the family?”
I don’t say anything, just find myself once again staring at that glorious view.
Two years ago I hadn’t managed to say much, either. Hardly a single word for months, after the incident. It drove Mum to distraction. But once Mrs Patterson got me going again, I sort of exploded in verbosity. Most of it indecent. First it was the swearing she worked on – to stop it, obviously, not to improve it. Then the anger. And, bit by bit, things gradually calmed down. On the outside, at least.
“You still there, love?”
“Oh, sorry.” I turn back to the taxi driver and reach for my bag.
The only recent contact I’ve had from Mrs Lenore is a hurried text message that she sent me about half an hour ago: Sorry, something’s cropped up. Could you get one of the station cabs to Cliff House? Will pay you back later.
“Keep the change,” I say to the driver as I clamber out of the cab, feeling very much like a Hollywood film star about to enter her oversized pad by the ocean.
In my growing-up years I used to dream about being a film star, as well as a ballerina, model, bestselling writer, air hostess, teacher, stripper, gangster’s moll, and mother of six.
* * *
The steps that lead from the driveway up to the main entrance of Cliff House are not intended for the infirm or elderly. Even I, fit and young as I am, have to struggle up the damn things with my wheelie case and heavy backpack before reaching the shady porch. Mission accomplished, I drop my oversized accessories onto the wooden floor planks and take a few seconds to regain my breath. The clammy heat of the day still clings to my clothes after the train journey from Pickering, followed by the sticky interior of the taxi. I’m in dire need of a shower and freshening up before getting stuck into my new job. Which, I must admit, I’m beginning to feel quite anxious about.
Actually, I’m pretty shit scared right now. The palms of my hands have gone all sweaty. I feel exactly like I did when I arrived at the graduation ball – overwhelmed by the urge to bolt, head back to the station, back home to Pickering. This whole thing might turn out to be one huge fuck-up.
But it’s too late now.
I hear footsteps approaching from behind the front door.
The door bursts open, and out bounds a beast: all over me, tongue on my face, paws on my shoulder, tail thumping so fiercely, it makes a brilliant drum beat against the stone pillar to my assailant’s left. I stagger backwards, saved from falling over altogether by my wheelie case.
“Enough, Boris! I said ENOUGH!”
The furry canine finally capitulates and drops to the floor by my feet, panting away like the proverbial steam engine. So at least the mystery of Boris has now been solved. Neither resident grandad nor uncle with a roaming eye.
“Miss O’Hara, is it? You must be the new au pair. What an unfortunate introduction.”
“It’s okay,” I say, trying to smile at the distinguished man as I wipe the remains of doggie saliva from my face.
“You mustn’t be scared by his show of affection,” the man continues in a not very convincing voice. I’d put him in his late forties: elegantly dressed, tall and lean, dark hair with a distinguishing touch of grey, glasses that intensify the blue of his eyes. Probably would have been quite a catch in his youth. His voice is posh and husky, with plum-in-the-mouth enunciation. No doubt his mummy and daddy paid for him to go to some outrageously expensive and stuck-up private school.
“The trouble is, Miss O’Hara,” he goes on, “we have here a two-year-old Belgian Malinois who thinks he’s still a puppy. They’re a high-energy breed, these Malinois. Very intelligent. I assume you were informed about the dog?”
“Um – I think so.”
“Oh, good. So not too much of a shock, then.” He extends his hand for the requisite greeting. “Dr Neil Conlon, family physician. I’ve known Chloe Lenore half my life. Literally. Right from her first pregnancy. Pleased to meet you.”
The Kitty of two years ago would have had no trouble responding. The Kitty of today shakes his hand with some discomfort. False bravado is one thing; face to face meetings quite another. He has a strong, manly grip.
“So is blue hair all the rage now?” he asks, raising a quizzical eyebrow at my vivid curls. When I give an awkward shrug in reply, he carries straight on: “I expect you must be tired after your journey. “Please, come in. Let me take your case for you.”
“Thanks.” I hand the bulky thing over, then ask: “So where’s Mrs Lenore?”
“I’m afraid she’s not feeling too well. Migraine. But I’m sure she’ll be better by tomorrow. Here boy!” He makes a clicking sound with his tongue before turning round and stepping into the shadowed entrance hall, family pet closely in tow.
I hitch my backpack over my shoulder and follow them both in. Boris promptly deposits himself in a large, hairy dog basket that’s tucked under the imposing staircase. The bannister climbs up and up, alongside a Rogues Gallery of antediluvian portraits, then curves round on itself and disappears into the uncharted realms of Valhalla.
“Let me show you round the house,” the doctor says, adding, “just to make sure you don’t get lost.” He laughs at this, but I don’t see what’s funny.
The bedroom I’ve been allocated is on the first floor, and the boys’ rooms are at the other end of the corridor. Apparently there’s a strictly private zone on the top floor, where Mrs Lenore spends most of her days seeing to Dianne’s needs.
“I’m afraid no one’s allowed up there except Chloe Lenore and me,” the doctor explains as we clamber back down the stairs. “It’s rather a sanctified rule, so please bear that in mind.” I nod at him, with every intention of breaking the sanctity of that rule.
Back on the ground floor, I’m shown the morning room next (used for private lessons, I’m told) and a vast living room, with a grand piano sprawled out in a bay at the far end that faces the North Sea.
A lightning memory flashes behind my eyes. Dianne talking about her mum. “Summer’s always the busiest time of year for her,” she’s saying in that beautiful low voice of hers that makes me literally want to swallow it, “because she tours the local resorts giving piano recitals.” I found it all hugely impressive, like everything else to do with Dianne’s life. Fancy having a mum who’s a concert pianist! And when Dianne tried to calm me down by saying, “Only a minor pianist, Kitty, please don’t exaggerate,” I rolled my eyes and said, “Well, it’s better than being a minor hairdresser, right?”
Back to the present. Must stop drifting.
Finally, I’m shown the kitchen, replete with pantry, Aga, farmhouse table and French doors that open out onto a long, lush back garden. This is perhaps the highlight of my tour. The terraced grounds proliferate in a blazing splash of exotic flowers and dense foliage that gradually trail out of sight as they climb their way down the steep hill. It’s all quite breathtaking. I mean literally. By the time we finally end up back in the central hallway by the staircase, with all those obnoxious ancestors staring down at us, I’m bloody knackered.
“And if you were wondering where the boys are,” the doctor continues (I wasn’t), “they always go to Alex’s for the weekend. That’s their father, Mrs Lenore’s estranged husband.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Oh yes, of course you do. There you are, good boy.” He draws out a handful of doggie biscuits from his trouser pocket and scatters them in the basket. Boris gobbles them all up in three seconds flat. “Alex will be dropping them off tomorrow morning in time for their maths lesson at 9.00. So you’re free to unwind and make yourself at home for the rest of this evening.”
He smiles evasively. “It’s part of their summer holiday schedule. I’m sure Chloe – Mrs Lenore – will be happy to fill you in on the details when you meet her tomorrow.”
Maths lessons during the summer holidays? Sounds to me like the keep them out of my hair type of parenting. I’m already bristling on behalf of my two absent charges.
“Anyway, I’ll be off now,” the doctor says, glancing at his watch. “The housekeeper has left you a spot of Shepherd’s pie – it just needs heating up in the microwave. She’s gone to stay with her family for the summer, so for the next few weeks it’ll mostly be just you and the boys. But Robbie has agreed to help out whenever he can.”
“You see, I’m afraid Chloe doesn’t have much free time, with all the demands of seeing to a minimally conscious daughter who’s housebound.” Suddenly he frowns at me. “I assume you know about Dianne?”
I decide to test the waters: “What happened to her?”
He hesitates. “Brain trauma resulting from a blow to the head. But I’m afraid that subject is rather out of bounds.”
So he knows, and thinks I don’t. Which suits me fine.
The above extract is from ‘Her Last Coherent Thought’