Music: Paolo Nutini
Car: 2010 Mini Cooper Countryman,
mildly dented and very dusty
Season: Summer; heatwave
Harry’s choice of music for a weekend of arguments was a deliberately growling, sexual and melancholy anthem. Caustic Love had played through twice in the car, and Jo knew that it would be this year’s background music in the cottage too. When Harry discovered an album he liked, he listened to it incessantly. She’d sneak in the odd old favourite, but whenever the iDock went unguarded, he’d change it back.
First came the Friday-night rituals: the Best Indian Takeaway in Shropshire had to be visited to order more than two people could hope to eat; they patronized the Six Tuns while they waited for their food, and ordered a plastic flagon of local ale to imbibe later. The narrow lanes of Castle Craven had to be walked and shopfronts studied, closures noted, the high street’s higgledy-piggledy, half-timbered history admired. And then – cardboard box wedged between coats and bottles in the boot, its corners softening from rising steam and leaking sauce – they drove the ten miles on to the cottage, winding through tight hedge-hugged lanes then climbing high above the valley into which they dropped briefly to roll along its side, like a roulette ball. They rattled over the potholes and the cattle grid on to the track, climbing higher again, scattering sheep, cursing the deep ruts left by the farmer, back wheel spinning as they lamented the sale of Harry’s beloved Range Rover. At last the tyres gripped hard-core for the final hundred yards beside the roaring brook and they drove into the woods to find Morrow waiting. As soon as he saw it, Harry’s face burst into the smile that he seemed to have held back all year.
Even after a decade, Jo struggled to remember her way through the narrow lanes of the south Shropshire hills to the hidden valley that the cottage overlooked. She could never have found Morrow as instinctively as Harry did. Summer, winter, daylight, darkness, snow, rain or sun, he forged the straightest line to the place he had loved since childhood.
The arrival rituals were also deeply ingrained. The only things they carried inside were the takeaway, the ale, and wine for Jo: her taste for hops had faded after she’d hit forty. The stove had to be lit, even in a heatwave, although the back boiler no longer bubbled into life with eerie ghost farts from the tank housed in a bedroom cupboard: the ancient solid-fuel system had given way to eco-friendly biomass. But the wood-burner was still a vital part of their arrival: its crackling glow brought the cottage to life, with fat candles that smelt of hot dust and flickered as Harry gathered plates and glasses, grumbled about how the place had been left by other visitors, put on music loudly and flipped forward to his favourite track. He was so excited to be there that he had almost forgotten Jo was with him.
She felt a familiar tightening of her sinews, the irritation of the neglected wife. Morrow was always Harry’s gig, even though he complained that it was hardly recognizable these days. It didn’t matter how many hints Jo dropped about needing a cosmopolitan weekend of culture to remind them that there was intelligent life beyond hamster-wheeling, hard-working parenthood: Harry wanted to go to just one place.
The takeaway was spread on the pockmarked table – it had been sanded and waxed by a restorer in recent years but was still as deeply grained and liver-spotted as an old man’s hand. The ale was poured, the wine uncorked and the stove flues closed to calm the kindling as it ignited seasoned logs. Paolo was singing his heart out through ‘Iron Sky’, Harry’s phone like a little tombstone in its iDock. There had been a time when the phones had stayed in the car, Jo remembered. There had been no point in bringing them in, so far from any signal. But we had talked to each other then, she thought bleakly.
She watched Harry devour the food, still complaining about the paying holiday guests and the housekeeper who came from beyond Craven Castle to clean and strip bedding on changeover days: ‘Why fold the tip of the bloody loo roll?’
‘People like that sort of thing. It’s boutiquey.’
‘It’s all about authenticity, these days. Give them a stack of ripped farm-auction catalogues hanging on a piece of string.’ His eyes narrowed as he spotted a bare nail poking from the wall above the door. ‘She’s put away the stag’s head again.’
‘It is a bit scary.’
‘Brian’s been here since the seventies. He sees off evil.’
‘The cottage has been here since fifteen hundred. It can see off evil on its own.’ Even your bad temper, she added silently. Morrow always soothed it away, eventually, although it took longer each time they came. And I’m not sure I want to wait any longer, Jo’s silent voice added.
He was studying the visitors’ book, tutting and snorting at any critical comments. ‘“The ice tray is cracked” . . . “Could do with fluffier towels” . . . They should have tried
coming here when you had to start the generator to turn on a light. “The cafetière leaks coffee grounds, and please mend the broken shaver sockets. It was most inconvenient that we couldn’t charge our toothbrushes.” Well, screw you, Barry and Debs Newton from Reading.’ He reached across and crammed a blade of poppadum into his mouth. ‘I hope the coffee grits are still giving you hell between your unbrushed teeth.’
My heart leaks love, Jo thought wretchedly. She imagined writing in the book: ‘Please mend my broken marriage and charge it up.’ Morrow had always obliged before, but now she couldn’t see how it might possibly help them. Once, Harry’s extraordinary warmth and generosity, which had melted her heart from deep-frozen cynicism, had counteracted his anger. Now it eclipsed any affection and the frost had returned. She was suffocating with unhappiness, trapped beneath the slow-moving glacier of co-dependent domesticity. Visiting Morrow had once been a magical escape, but now it was as much of a routine etched with mutual rancour as loading the dishwasher.
‘Man alive, people are unoriginal,’ Harry ranted on, dropping lime pickle on the page he was reading. ‘If I had a quid for every time someone writes, “The food at the Hare and Moon is very good”, as though they were the first to discover it, I’d be able to send every local hare round the moon on their own purpose-built rocket.’
‘They’re being kind.’ Guess how much I love you? Jo looked at his face, the deep frown softened by candlelight, remembering the book they’d read to the children as babies. The answer used to be, ‘To the moon and back.’ Now it rarely made it up the stairs to bed.
‘They’re stupid. People are stoopid.’ He reached for the ale flagon to top up his mug. Harry always insisted on drinking his beer from the same mug, a running joke that dated back to the year the cupboard with the glasses in it had fallen off the wall, its weight too much for the damp old lime plaster.
Jo watched the beer foam into the mug. It always surprised her how many of her life choices had depended on tiny triggers. The decision to make a life with Harry, to move away from London, to have a second child, had all revolved around practical catalysts, straws balanced on a camel’s back.
Now he picked up the little plastic tubs containing the pickles – the Best Indian Takeaway in Shropshire made their own, sweetly spiced Utopia for the taste buds – and scooped out the rest on to his plate, then looked around for something to load them on to. Jo had counted six poppadums when she was putting them out. Harry had eaten four. She had had one. If he takes the last without offering it to me, our marriage is over, she decided.
He looked across at her, beer foam and crumbs in the summer-holiday beard she’d thought so sexy the first year he’d grown it. Unsmiling, he reached for the plate.
Music: Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker
Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys
Car: 1990 Golf GTi, very battered
Season: Spring; sunny
FROM THE VISITOR S’ BOOK, MARCH 2006
What a rare find! When something is this beautiful and unspoilt, taking it for granted for a minute is unforgivable, and years of neglect are a capital offence. I plan to revisit regularly. And also come back to the cottage.
Harry Inchbold, London
The car was screaming along to ‘Smokestack Lightning’. Jo was convinced a part of the exhaust had fallen off somewhere near Oxford.
‘It’s my sister Titch’s banger,’ Harry explained, as they trailed a snake of fumes on the M40. ‘She never uses it.’
‘Can’t say I blame her.’ The Volkswagen was roaring like an amorous elephant seal. I’m escaping from London for the weekend with a man I barely know, she reflected happily, as she studied Harry’s profile, enthralled by its unfamiliarity. All she knew for certain about him was that he was sensational in bed, and that he made her laugh nonstop. As Muddy Waters took over the airwaves, proclaiming that he had his mojo workin’, she shared his sentiments entirely.
They’d met at one of Fi and Dom’s dinner parties in the Islington love nest, a regular diary date since the couple’s wedding, with guests reunited by the dozen to admire the new twelve-place Denby tableware. Newly-wed Fi possessed a Cupid urge to set up unattached friends with Dom’s banking buddies, however little they had in common. Recently reclassified as single, Jo was towed across the seagrass carpet upon arrival to meet a tall, handsome-but-dull thirty-something futures trader called Matt, who regarded her with polite indifference despite – or possibly as a result of – their hostess’s gushing introductions: ‘You’re in for such a treat, Matt, because Jo’s a hugely talented artist who runs her own company and still finds time to globetrot to the world’s most glamorous beaches.’ Translation: artyfarty overachiever with skin like leather. ‘Matt is a brilliant “scalper” with a mind like a razor, who climbs mountains on his days off.’ A.k.a. an adrenalin junkie with something to prove. Poor Fi. It was like introducing two noble gases and hoping for chemistry. As far as Jo could tell, Fi’s sole criterion for their compatibility had been height; it would have been more honest had she said: ‘Matt and Jo, I think you’d suit each other perfectly because you’re both ridiculously tall. Go and start a super race!’
Jo was still far too raw to be in search of love. She saw little of Fi these days, so it wasn’t Fi’s fault that she had added Jo to her singles database while her split from Tom was still in progress, the scar tissue painfully shared. Fi wasn’t to know how delicate a process it was to dismantle a long-term relationship in which one half had gradually become sole breadwinner, social secretary and housekeeper. Three months after they had officially called it a day, Tom was still occupying the spare bedroom of the flat they had shared for five years, working his way through his stash of birthday and Christmas malt whisky as he watched National Geographic and played poker online, stubbornly in denial, dependent and depressed as his world crumbled beneath him. To avoid being at home, Jo accepted every invitation that came her way.
Now that she was back at the start in the dating game, she’d lost all faith in it. It was a snakes-and-ladders fairytale for the young based on castles in the air, priapic beanstalks bolting from cold frame to hothouse, familiarity and infatuation growing too fast on the same vine. She knew from bitter experience that the rot set in eventually under the weight of expectations. But, right now, Jo wanted to do something she had never done before, something born of uncharacteristically cool cynicism, and it didn’t involve being set up with husband material at dinner parties. In her twenty-year active sex life, Jo had never had a one-night stand. She’d never wanted one until now, but a bloody-minded horniness had gripped her during those sleepless post-Tom nights. Her body was firm from working through her anger at the gym, slim from weight loss caused by break-up stress, and she was eager to take pleasure again. She wasn’t looking for a date or even much of a conversation. Instead she was determined to have one final fling before resigning from the game indefinitely.
And that night in Islington, she’d heard a man’s laugh across the room, a sweet, feral sound that made her pulse points tighten.
Craning to see who it was, she’d casually asked Indifferent Matt whom he knew there. He’d reeled off a list of Dom’s usual City-boy suspects, adding, ‘And my disreputable brother is the prodigal guest leading our host astray. Bad form to muck up Fi’s numbers, but Harry’s staying with me right now, and I don’t trust him on his own.’ He made it sound like he’d got an unruly Labrador in tow.
The unruly Labrador turned out to be lounging on a sill with Dom. They were smoking out of the open sash window as that fabulous laugh rang out. With his mop of blond hair, black linen shirt and houndstooth bags, he stood out in a room full of sharp suits, a devilish Disney prince with an over-eighteen certificate. Glancing over his shoulder, his hair buffeted by the sharp February wind, he’d spotted Jo and shared with her a smile of such unbridled sensuality that she sensed her long stint of piety might be under threat. It was about time: her vintage copy of Fear of Flying had been by her bed for a while now, Janis Joplin’s ‘One Night Stand’ on her iPod, and her mind was made up. Jo Coulson needed to flirt again.
‘You’re brothers?’ she’d asked her companion, incredulous that one was as louche and languid as the other was frosty and formal.
‘I’m afraid so.’ Matt looked pained, as their hostess darted between them to top up glasses and check the chemistry.
‘Dom says you Inchbold twins were once known as the Saint and the Sinner,’ Fi conversation-hijacked brightly. ‘And I know what an angel you are, Matt, so I don’t need to ask who the Saint was.’ She’d cast an encouraging look at Jo.
But Jo’s gaze had strayed back to the man by the window. She was more interested in sin. As their eyes crossed once more, her lock was sprung. The mutual attraction was intoxicating.
A social gathering with Fi and Dom usually cast Jo as inadvertent comedy-fashion turn, never more so than at their big church wedding the previous year, where her striped red fifties’ dress had resembled a lifebuoy amid the grey, teal and cream sea of morning suits and dresses. Within her own circle of friends, Jo was the vintage-loving conformist, but in Fi’s world she was the opposite: a scruffy bohemian imposter, her hair always longer and wilder, her lipstick redder, and inevitably a head taller than almost everyone. For the newly-weds’ dinner party she’d toned down her style, with a dark grey wraparound dress, hair blow-dried straight, her cuffed highwayman boots low-heeled, but one look around the room had told her she still stood out as alien. The other women were all in high-necked, figure-hugging pale tailoring, matched with high-maintenance glossy bobs. Jo’s dress kept flashing her raspberry-coloured bra and was one badly tied bow away from a full frontal. Yet when the blond stranger had looked at her again and continued looking, she was grateful she stood out. And when he started to make his way over to her, she’d found heartbeats starting up in parts of her body she’d forgotten about . . .
Now Jo turned to look at him in the driver’s seat, a latterday James Hunt cutting through the motorway traffic, his profile ridiculously well proportioned, the long dimples that ran from his laughter lines to his jaw constantly animated with flirtation and amusement. Late thirties, self-assured and in possession of eyes so dark blue they were almost black, Harry Inchbold was, quite simply, sex on legs, and he knew it.
The fact that he’d clearly been half-cut on the night they’d met had done nothing to diminish his charisma. Acutely aware of his presence as he’d moved towards her through the room, Jo had tuned into his voice – the same husky timbre as the laugh and slightly transatlantic – responding to a barrage of ‘How the devil are you?’ and ‘How’s America?’ from other guests, all of whom appeared to know him.
The closer he’d got, the more Jo had found their eyes catching. She’d forgotten how good it felt, that unspoken overture. His gaze was so seductively predatory, it was as though he was regarding her across a few inches of creased pillow, not a crowded room. Although equally tall and athletic, he was clearly a world apart from his neatly barbered brother Matt, who hadn’t looked her in the eye once, talked in a nasal monotone and finally introduced her to Harry as ‘Jane’.
‘It’s Jo, actually.’
As he landed a kiss by her ear – most men had to stand on tiptoe, but Harry Inchbold bent his head – he smelt intoxicatingly of Terre d’Hermès and danger. The tiny hairs on the nape of her neck had done a Mexican wave.
‘Enchanted to meet you, Joactually. I’m Basicallyharry.’ It hadn’t been the greatest joke – and he’d slurred his words slightly – but the ripped-silk voice and come-to-bed eyes meant that pretty much anything he said sounded fabulously intimate. ‘How d’you know Dom and Fi, Joactually?’
‘Fi and I shared a flat once, Basicallyharry.’
‘Joactually, that’s really interesting.’
‘It’s not, Basicallyharry.’
With this silly patter, the smile they were sharing across an imaginary creased pillow grew ever more conspiratorial.
‘As I’m sure my brother’s told you, I’m gate-crashing.’ He’d dropped his voice.
‘I’ve said no such thing,’ Matt said starchily. ‘You know everyone here.’
Now, encouraging his guests towards the table, Dom was standing beside them. ‘Harry’s just moved back after a decade wowing the States as their enfant terrible of branding,’he explained to Jo.
‘What brought you home?’ she asked.
‘I fell out with my boss,’ Harry said lightly.
God, but his smile was disarming. She hardly took in Dom’s sympathetic aside to Harry: his boss had apparently pulled the purse strings so tight she’d must have been hoping his balls would drop off. From the message she was seeing in Harry Inchbold’s eyes, his balls were still firmly attached.
When they’d made their way to the table, one saintly Inchbold twin had moved ahead to hold out her chair while the other placed a sinful hand on her back to steer her towards it, his thumb turning a barely perceptible circle on the bare skin above her neckline. It was a sensation she would never forget, bringing with it a physical bolt of response so sudden and exposed that every other guest seemed to be playing voyeur. Jo understood only too well how sexual attraction had the power to bring down empires. Her own little empire had already fallen, so it hardly mattered that she already wanted to sleep with Harry Inchbold without knowing who he was or caring where he went. Final flings needed no interview or job description.
Now the Volkswagen engine roared a bass note as John Lee Hooker sang ‘Bang Bang Bang Bang’, and Jo watched Harry squinting at a passing road sign, the creases around his blue eyes surely engraved more by laughter than frowning. His laugh was so good that she sought it now like a fix. If they were going to share just a few hours of each other’s – long, happy and separate – lives, they were going to do so with aching ribs and no regrets. He glanced across at her and the big, easy smile slotted the little tanned jigsaw pieces together at his temples, fragments of a deliciously dissolute past.