Here’s a preview of the first chapter of my next novel, Infinite Stranger, which is being published this summer.
On a snowy February morning in 1978, eighteen-year-old Leah Cavanagh meets Brother Matthew Haddon while on a retreat with her Catholic girls’ school. The four days she spends at Greystones Abbey in the wilds of North Yorkshire will have a profound impact not only on her own life, but also on that of her single mother Molly, who never recovered from the murder of her fiancé in 1956.
Leah and Brother Matthew start writing to each other. Soon a tentative friendship develops, with a hint of more. The longing that Leah feels is shared vicariously by Molly, who sees something of her late fiancé in the handsome monk. When Leah leaves home to study at music college, her feelings for Matthew deepen and she has difficulty committing to other relationships.
Over the coming years Leah keeps returning to Greystones Abbey. The forbidden desire she feels for Brother Matthew grows in intensity with each visit, until boundaries reach breaking point. Soon Leah finds herself unable to break free, neither from her adoring but manipulative mother, nor her enigmatic yet tortured monk.
Lichfield, July 1983
Tomorrow is my wedding day.
Those words could be the lyrics to a song, don’t you think? A joyful song; one that injects your veins with a rush of adrenaline, giddiness, the narcotic urge to dance. I can feel a strong beat there. To-mor-row is my wed-ding day. Four-four time. Could be a tango, then. I can already picture myself on the dance floor: slow, thigh-clinging strides in sync with my partner’s, the occasional unexpected lurch as he tips me backwards – long hair tumbling away from my face, eyes shut in concentration as said partner holds me firmly round the waist to make sure I don’t topple over completely, hitting the parquet with a thump.
I meant to say groom, not partner. Because come tomorrow, that’s what he’ll be. And I his wife. Mr and Mrs. His and hers.Happily ever after.
The zone where fairy tales fear to tread.
So tomorrow I’m getting married and you should be here with me, Mother. You should be sitting by my side, in the living room of my tumbledown cottage in Lichfield, keeping me company on my last night as a single woman. Your feet should be propped up on the coffee table; mine tucked beneath me. You always liked stretching out your feet, because you said it was good for the circulation. Our hands should be cradling mugs of hot milky coffee, our lips blowing the steam away before taking that first sip. The TV should be on, tuned into an old black and white film – Bette Davis perhaps, or better still, Vivien Leigh, your favourite, because in your youth everyone said you had a Scarlett O’Hara smile. And later at night, before making our way up the staircase to our respective bedrooms, we could have a final peek at my wedding dress. There it’ll be, hanging outside the wardrobe in all its sequinned finery, catching the glow from the lightbulb as we step inside my room and flick the switch by the door, transposing drabness into magic: a shimmering satin splendour. In fact, rather like you.
You should be here on this special night, supporting me, calming my nerves, stroking my face, murmuring, It’ll be fine, darling. It’ll be fine.
But you’re not here. Instead of cradling a mug of coffee in my hands, I’m clutching a letter. A crumpled letter, with fine calligraphy that’s smudged with water stains. Tears, actually. A letter you never knew about, because I slipped it in my bag before you had the chance to spot it in the hall at Belle View on my last visit home. Good job I was standing there at the time, putting on my jacket and getting ready to leave at the very moment the postman pushed the envelope through the letter box. You were in the kitchen, clattering about by the sink, washing up mugs, delaying the bitter sorrow of parting. So I stole the letter – which was addressed to you but definitely from him, because I recognised his handwriting – and I read it on the inter-city train from Lyneham-on-Sea to Birmingham, then the local one to Lichfield. I read it multiple times, on both journeys. Every word of it. That’s when I knew there was no point in calling off the wedding. That’s when it finally hit home that there was no other way.
You should be here tonight, fussing me, loving me like the true mother you once were. But ‘once’ is a sad word, locked in that unattainable land we call the past. ‘Once’ has all the longing of a Chopin nocturne. Perhaps his E minor Opus 72, your favourite. I could have played it for you tonight. I could have given you an entire private recital, far more intimate than the concert hall.
But you refused to come, which is absolutely fine by me, because I didn’t want you here anyway.
‘How could you do it? I hate you!’
That was me two weeks ago, back home in Lyneham-on-Sea. You said nothing; just surveyed me with cold eyes. Where had all their warmth and sparkle gone? Where was the pert smile that had always won hearts?
‘I can never go back to Greystones now! You’ve fucked it up well and truly this time!’
I hardly recognised my own voice. Did I really say all that? It’s true that the random swear word has crept into my vocabulary these last few years, together with the odd cigarette and large glass of wine or two, but I never actually use the ‘f’ word. Just the occasional ‘bloody’ or ‘sodding’.
But I don’t want to think about any of that now. Not tonight, of all nights. I want to be filled with warm memories. I want us to share our longing for him one final time, before tomorrow’s wedding vows put a final stop to any such stupid flights of fancy.
So let’s go back. Let’s exercise a little suspension of disbelief. Then you and I can time-travel to the days when you were the most important person in my life, the best mother in the world. The days when we both believed in love and its illusory dream.
Greystones Abbey. Deep in the rolling hills of North Yorkshire. That’s as good a place as any to begin, because that’s where I first met him, during the February half-term holiday of 1978.
One thought on “INFINITE STRANGER”
This looks to be a fascinating novel. I can hardly wait!
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