The dark, dramatic and compelling new novel from the Sunday Times Top Five bestselling author and two-time Richard & Judy Book Club pick.
Harriet Evans returns with a tale of the infinite possibilities of families - how they can anchor you or unseat you - and why unconditional love holds the key to true freedom. A must for lovers of Kate Morton, Lucinda Riley and Santa Montefiore.
How can you ever know yourself when you were deprived of love as a child?
It's the 1970s, and Sarah has spent a lifetime trying to bury her disjointed childhood, the loneliness of her school days, and Fane, the vast and crumbling family home so loved - and hated - by her mother, Iris, a woman as cruel as she is beautiful. Sarah's solace has been her cello and the music that allowed her to dream, transporting her from the bleakness of those early years to a new life now with Daniel, her husband, in their noisy Hampstead home surrounded by bohemian friends and with a concert career that has brought her fame and restored a sense of self.
The past, though, has a habit of creeping into the present, and as long as Sarah tries to escape, it seems the pull of Fane, her mother, and the secrets of the generations hidden there, are slowly being revealed, threatening to unravel the fragile happiness she enjoys in the here and now. Sarah will need to travel back to Fane to confront her childhood and search for the true meaning of home.
Deliciously absorbing and rich with character and atmosphere, The Stargazers is the story of a house, a family, and the legacies of childhoods fractured through time and inheritance.
Praise for Harriet Evans' captivating and twisty stories . . .
'Bewitching, beguiling and utterly beautiful' VERONICA HENRY'
'Gorgeous, gothic and gripping' RED
''Taut as a drumskin and thrumming with tension' HEAT
'Rich and sweeping . . . dark and delicious' DAILY MAIL
(P) 2023 Headline Publishing Group Ltd
Release date: September 14, 2023
Print pages: 416
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‘Hold on tight, Sarah! Hold on! Are you ready?’
Are you ready?
‘Yes, Daniel darling,’ she said, unable to believe it was really happening. ‘Yes, I’m ready.’
‘This turning is bloody awkward. OK? Here we go, my bird. Here we go!’
The sun shone with the full force of late September, bathing the cobbles of The Row with the last of summer’s silky light. As instructed, Sarah Forster held on tight to the door, while her husband reversed and swore at the same time, the noise from each activity growing proportionally louder the less success he had. A Hampstead matron scuttling past, with neat coils of silver hair and gloved hands gripping a rigid handbag, glanced at them in covert horror as Daniel, swearing and rocking the gear stick back and forth, inexpertly tried to negotiate the van they’d borrowed between the wooden gateposts denoting the entrance to The Row.
Later, Sarah would appreciate her husband’s loudness in public, his obliviousness to others’ judgements. Then, she was still not quite used to it, and though she smiled, patting his arm encouragingly, she wanted to sink down into the footwell of the seat, cover herself with the road atlas and remain there till it was all over. She felt like this quite often.
‘Bloody hell, Sarah!’ Daniel muttered furiously as the car lurched violently and the Hampstead matron, terrified, ran for cover up a side street. ‘The British hate cars – that’s their trouble. We hate progress, and anything that’s unusual. Look at the state of British industry! Why have this bloody gatepost here! Why! Why make our lives harder? It’s our street, after all! I’m going to write a letter.’
‘To whom, my adorable Philistine. Is there a mayor of Hampstead?’
‘There’s the GLC.’ The van was bunny-hopping down the last few yards towards the oval-shaped private garden and Daniel steered it left, braking gently. Sarah drew a long, silent breath. They were here. This was The Row: the dense trees, heavy with summer’s last flourish, the cooing pigeons, the shouts of children playing in the central garden, surrounded by two crescents of redbrick houses, some hung with silver tiles, some with gables, or balconies, or turrets. It was like a film set, a child’s toy town. Her eye flickered from one to the other. Which one is it again? She looked round. She had the feeling she was being watched.
This is our house, she said quietly to herself. And so it begins.
‘We’re here, darling,’ Daniel was saying. ‘Finally. Now, who’s this fool blocking the way? Oh, damn, I think it’s a neighbour. Good afternoon!’
‘That’s me,’ came a woman’s dry voice. ‘You must be the new bods.’
Daniel climbed out of the car. ‘We most certainly are.’ As Sarah got out and shut the door, Daniel was shaking hands with a tall woman standing in front of the gate next to their house. She held a cigarette in one hand and a trowel in the other. She sported a silver crop and wore a black polo neck and slacks; completing the look was a huge pair of round white sunglasses.
She gave them a brisk but warm smile. ‘I’m Diana, Diana Catesby. Glad to meet you.’
‘Ah!’ said Daniel, still pumping her hand up and down enthusiastically. ‘As in Catesby, Ratcliffe and Lovell.’
‘He was my great-something grandfather,’ Diana said carelessly. ‘Catesbys of Ashby Manor, don’t you know.’
‘Well, well. I’m Daniel Forster,’ said Daniel. Diana nodded and gave him another quick smile. ‘Of the Ashkenazi Jewish Forsters of Ukraine and Germany via Petticoat Lane and Sussex, you know.’ Sarah wanted to disappear again, but Diana laughed. ‘And this is my wife, Sarah.’
‘We can’t have that. Where are you from, Sarah?’
There was a pause. ‘Oh,’ said Sarah, ‘I’m like the Nowhere Man. From Nowhere Land.’ She put her hands on her hips, and inexplicably did a little dance, before stopping, blushing furiously.
‘Sarah’s my wife?’ said Daniel somewhat uncertainly, as if he wasn’t sure she’d agreed to it.
‘So, you’ve bought Thorpe’s place,’ Diana said, moving on without comment. She raised her eyebrows, with a slight smile. ‘Well, well – welcome.’ She laughed. ‘It’s in rather a state. Rather strange, thinking of anyone other than Adrian Thorpe there. They were a lovely family. I suppose that’s a rather tactless thing to say.’
‘Not at all,’ said Daniel. ‘I’m glad they were lovely. And I’m glad they left it in a state. We wouldn’t have been able to buy it otherwise.’
Sarah was scanning the brickwork, the window frames, the front path, the cracked stones where weeds flung themselves up towards the sunlight. Silvery tiles covered the top half of the house, rising to a fringed white wood gable, and at the corner, in front of chimneys as tall as cathedral spires, was a turret, a curved princess’s tower. The leaded windows glinted in the afternoon sun. Several were cracked, or broken entirely.
Well, Sarah said to herself, it’s going to keep us busy, I suppose.
She gave a smile at the memory of the previous night, their last in the little flat in Islington, their first home together. They’d eaten pasta around the tiny table in their tiny kitchen, sharing a bottle of wine and making each other laugh till they were weak with stories of their respective days – how she’d got lost in Peter Jones, looking at curtains, and had to back away towards the underwear department when she thought she saw Susan Cowper, the most dreadful girl from school, replete with headscarf, pearls and gloves (she was a year older than Sarah, so twenty-seven).
Susan had glanced over, and bared her remarkably large, horsey teeth, as if recognising, or scenting, Sarah, and Sarah had stumbled backwards against a mannequin and, thinking she was being assaulted, had caught the mannequin’s arm and wrenched it off, before dropping to the ground, like soldiers on manoeuvres. Later, she had made a joke of it to Daniel, but her blood was pumping, her cheeks flushed and she was astonished at the rage she felt, seeing Susan again, after all those years, after everything.
Daniel had laughed until tears ran down his cheeks at the way she told it, and Sarah had laughed too, at the image of herself, staggering backwards, assaulting a mannequin. Daniel had told her about how that very day he’d tried to help an old lady across the road by gently taking her arm, whereupon she had angrily shaken herself free and shouted, ‘Unhand me, sir!’ before striding rapidly in the other direction towards Judd Street.
‘Oh dear,’ Sarah had said, gripping the sides of the table, their joint laughter ringing around the small flat. ‘We’re not going to become sedate and boring and talk about property prices and the EEC at dinner after we move to Hampstead, are we?’
‘Never,’ Daniel had said, and raised his glass. ‘Not us. To never being sedate! Long may sedateness be discontinued!’ And they had both found this, for some reason, funnier still.
Perhaps it was unspoken nerves. Sarah thought of the evening now, looking up at the house. She felt eyes on her, again, and shivered, wrapping her arms round her thin frame, encasing herself in her own warmth.
‘Well,’ said Diana, ‘I don’t want to hold you up. We’ll have a drink soon, yes?’ She removed her sunglasses with a flourish, waved her hand and hummed, her eyes rolling slightly back in her head. Sarah stared at her, fascinated. ‘Great to meet. Listen, I’ll leave you cats to it, but do, do shout if you need anything.’
‘Why do I know the name Adrian Thorpe?’ Sarah said, after Diana had turned and, swaying back down the path, vanished inside.
‘She was stoned,’ said Daniel, staring after her.
‘Well I never,’ said Daniel. ‘What a gal. Stoned, at midday.’
Sarah sniffed curiously. ‘Are you . . . sure?’
‘Oh, I’m sure. Did you see her pupils? Wide as her eyeballs. And she had bare feet. This is a good neighbour, Sarah,’ he said happily. ‘I like this house.’
‘Daniel – it isn’t too much for us, is it? We’re not flashy Hampstead up-and-coming types – we just want somewhere simple, don’t we?’
‘Don’t you remember?’ He took her wrists in his, holding her hands inside his. ‘I promised you I’d give you a home, a proper home. I did.’
‘I did,’ he repeated, as if it was worth saying twice.
‘I know, darling. I know. But – Adrian Thorpe!’ Sarah clicked her fingers. ‘I’ve got it. The newspaper editor. He edited The Times. Didn’t he used to visit Churchill during the Battle of Britain? Didn’t he basically dictate public morale?’ She turned towards the house, chewing her lip. This is . . . his house? Yikes.’
‘It’s not his house, Sarah, it’s ours,’ said Daniel. He took out a key then picked her up, swinging her into his arms, and kissed her, one hand holding the back of her head, his lips searching her, pulling her towards him. She could feel him inhaling, feel the shuddering breath inside him, and then he broke away, and looked down at her. ‘I love you. Sarah, I love you so much,’ he said, kissing her lightly again as he pushed open the front gate with his hip and she hummed the opening bars of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, which always reminded her of ceremonial marching. Daniel nodded. ‘Oh, that’s very good,’ he said, setting off down the path as if she were light as a bird, whilst she sang.
Inside, it was so quiet that Sarah’s ears rang with the noise of the van on the cobbles and the sensation, which she’d had since she’d woken in their Islington bedsit that morning, of falling, constantly, through space and time. She stared back through the curved redbrick porchway of her new home, at the patterned glass where entwined red and green shapes twisted into a knot, then again into the large, echoing hallway, where the Victorian tiles, patterned with stars, spread away from her, like a sea of galaxies, a path out towards the back of the house. It was chilly inside, dark and still.
‘Stars,’ she said, nudging Daniel. ‘Look, on the tiles.’
‘See? Didn’t I say? The hall was piled high with rubbish the old guy’s grandchildren were storing here while they argued about what to do with it. So I didn’t see the floor; I only noticed it today,’ Daniel said. He hitched his jacket around his shoulders, as if he too found it cold. ‘It’s a good sign.’ He pulled her against him.
‘I don’t understand how we got this house.’
She had been on a tour of Austria with the Pembroke Quartet when it came back on the market, and had had several agonised phone conversations with Daniel about it. ‘It’s perfect,’ he’d said. ‘It’s our house. I’m telling you it’s our house!’
When she’d returned to London – she’d thought the decision had been left open – she was slightly surprised to find they’d bought it, that it was a done deal. Their little flat was increasingly uninhabitable: fungus, mould, mice, a leaking roof and an invisible landlord. It was time to move. But from that to – this?
As if reading her mind, Daniel bent down and kissed the tip of her nose. ‘Everything OK, Mrs Forster?’
‘Absolutely,’ she said. ‘Just feeling rather strange, that’s all. Where’s my cello?’
‘It’s in the car. I’ll go and get it. Don’t worry. First thing in.’
She was fiddling with the open wires coming out of the light switches when he returned with a box of books, staggering over the threshold.
‘Open the first door will you, Sarah? There’s the study.’
Sarah looked around at the large, well-lit room with its curved windows, and the ecclesiastical-looking stained glass, the baronial fireplace, the empty shelves. ‘Here’s where the old man ran his empire, I guess. It’s the study. This is where I’ll write, and you can practise.’ He took her hand and pulled her along the corridor. She was smiling. ‘And in the evening we’ll move through into the kitchen. We’ll have dinner parties, all-day parties, brunch. Sarah, I’ll bring brunch to the English.’
‘You lived in New York for six months, Daniel. Stop pretending you’re Damon Runyon.’
‘It’s in my Jewish soul. I felt more at home there than anywhere. Apart from when I’m with you, I mean.’ Sarah rolled her eyes. ‘Now, look at this –’
He opened the kitchen door and she gazed in alarm at the large, echoing kitchen, the vast pine dresser that stood on the long wall to the right of the door, the cold stone floor, and more and more empty shelves, empty cupboards, all needing to be filled with – their things, their lives. At the back were dirty French windows giving out onto a tangled mass of brambles and bindweed that was the garden. He glanced towards her, and saw her face. She put her arm round his shoulders.
‘I love it.’ She ran her free hand through her hair till it stood on end, like a duck’s tail. ‘It’s a wonderful house, Daniel, but can we afford – all this? It’s a mansion!’
‘It’s not a mansion. It’s a semi-detached house.’
She could hear the disappointment in his voice: they had already had this conversation, and here she was, raking over it again, on this special day.
‘I know. I know the wiring needs doing and the floorboards are rotten, and the glass needs replacing, and we’ll have to clear the garden, sort out the damp, buy furniture, oh, everything. I know but – listen. Don’t be the Sarah who sees problems. Be my bird, the one who sees horizons, wants adventures, who has to have her cello, to play. Who says “why not?” instead of “why?”. Isn’t that what we promised each other? Come.’ His fingers tightened round hers, and she looked down at his large hand swallowing hers, the fine, long, graceful fingers, the strength in them, the gentleness and grace.
She didn’t say what she wanted to, which was I’ve lived in chaos before – you know I have. Instead, she said: ‘We did. And it’s going to be wonderful. I just need to get used to it. Only I don’t understand how you have the money.’
‘You don’t need to worry about that.’ He saw her jaw tighten. ‘OK. It’s more than we could afford. But not much more. They wanted cash, and I have cash, from Aunt Miriam’s will, peace be upon her.’
‘You used up all Aunt Miriam’s money?’
‘On a house!’ Daniel said, his voice raised. ‘I didn’t bloody blow it all on the nags, or at the Coach and Horses, Sarah! I bought us a house! Listen, I’m not saying it won’t be tough. We’ll be poor for years, my angel – you have to go out on tour immediately and I have to write a huge airport bestseller – but it’s all going to be worth it. We’d have been crazy not to go for it. It’s where we build ourselves. Think about what you’ve managed to accomplish, by yourself, since you got away. What she’d do if she knew.’ His face was lit up now. He was waving his arms around, his wicked enthusiasm almost infectious. He led her upstairs into the vast drawing room. ‘Here’s where we’ll sit in the evenings, and read, and listen to the radio, and watch TV. Look.’
‘There’s a balcony,’ said Sarah. ‘I’ve always wanted a little balcony.’ She smiled, and it was OK, and not so daunting. She closed her eyes, and suddenly she was there. She could see herself in summer, windows open to the street, the trees moving outside, someone or something padding around at her feet, and in winter a chair beside the window, a fire burning in the grate, wood smoke curling towards her, rain drizzling outside.
More and more rooms: box rooms with square dents in the carpet where the bed had been, tiny lavatories, huge bathrooms with clanging lavatory chains and claw-footed baths on more cold, bare tiles – Sarah wished she could simply put down cork matting right now. To have it all sorted out, this unwieldy, terrifyingly grand house where other people wanted to live and where ghosts seemed to be about to pop out at any moment. The Thorpes, all of them, coming back to claim the house. And all the time the feeling she was being watched, by whom she couldn’t say, wouldn’t go away.
On the top two floors were two bedrooms each. The second floor had a vast room overlooking the back garden and the garden of the house beyond, where a little girl sat, reading a book against a tree. Above, behind the houses, was the green expanse of the Heath.
‘This is our room,’ Sarah said, turning round, holding up a finger, as a bird sang in a tree outside. ‘Look at the sky. Look at the view. We can look at the stars, Daniel.’
He was staring down at the carpets, not at the view, but he said: ‘I know. There’s a tiny balcony there. With binoculars, it’s dark enough here we might even be able to see the Milky Way – I don’t know –’
‘Daniel! Stargazing.’ And suddenly the joy of it flooded her – they would live here, and sleep in this beautiful room, and it was affordable, thanks to Aunt Miriam. She felt a pang of guilt that she’d met Aunt Miriam once and secretly thought she was kind of mean, an old nosy parker who frowned at Sarah and at one point pinched her hip, as if disappointed with Sarah’s form – too much of it or too little, Sarah never knew, just that she was wrong in some way.
She breathed in, a ragged, happy breath. ‘Oh, Aunt Miriam. I love you.’ She looked down at Daniel, who was pulling energetically at a floorboard under the carpet. ‘I love you too, Daniel Forster. I can’t believe it. I can’t bloody believe this is where we live.’
He turned. ‘Yes?’ he said. ‘Oh,’ he said, following her outstretched finger, pointing at the view. ‘Oh yes.’
She gave him a small smile, but her face was serious. ‘I do love you,’ she said, the words thick in her throat. She held his face between her hands, kissing his temples, his eyelids, his wide cheekbones, his nose. ‘I love you more than anything, anyone, ever.’ She kissed his lips, and pressed herself against him. ‘Don’t ever leave me. Don’t ever let’s move.’ She kissed him again, almost feverishly. ‘Here. We’re here.’
‘We are,’ he said, not smiling now, his gaze intent. ‘Come down here.’ His hand slid up her leg, slowly, slipping into her knickers, sudden, quick, and she gasped. He pulled her down, onto the floor, and they made love, slowly, exquisitely, joyfully, feeling like children, playing at grown-ups, camping out for a night in someone else’s life.
Afterwards, Daniel slept, his face twitching as it always did when he was deeply asleep, and she lay there, happiness flooding her, listening to the sounds of the house and the trees outside, the noises of her new home, her new life, until her eyes closed.
A noise thudded through Sarah’s head; something seemed to be shaking. She could hear a dog barking, and for a moment didn’t know where she was. She sat up with a start, mouth dry. She was naked, her nipples tightening in the breeze from the open window. Next to her, her husband lay prone, creamy, ropy muscles tight across his shoulders and back. She gazed at him for a second, thinking how pleasing he was, how much she enjoyed simply looking at him.
The noise came again and she realised it was someone banging on the door. Her front door.
‘Daniel.’ Everything came flooding back. She yanked her long floral dress over her head. ‘Daniel, darling. Someone’s at the door. Did you park the van in the wrong –’
Daniel didn’t move. Sarah pulled on her plimsolls as the knocking grew louder. ‘Coming!’ she shouted. Her left hand skimmed the smooth bannister rail, worn and soft from years of hands resting on it. It was warm.
The front door was heavy, and true; it sat exactly in the frame. Sarah paused for a moment, her hand on the lock. Her first visitor. It was all wrong. She pushed her hair out of the way, smoothing down her dress, as if she were twelve again and standing outside Miss Parker’s office, waiting for the hammer to fall. Her hands were sticky with Daniel on her, on her fingers, her stomach, between her thighs. She was very aware she was naked under the dress.
Suddenly she smiled. She wasn’t twelve any more and this was her house. She opened the door.
‘Good afternoon!’ A bright, round face smiled at her. ‘You must be Mrs Forster, I heard from the Thorpes that was the name. I wanted to introduce myself.’ She held out a small, doughy hand.
Sarah looked down at it, blinking. Gold rings, studded with diamonds, turquoises, garnets, cut into the swollen fingers, each nail a gleaming, pearlescent almond shape. Sarah shook her hand. ‘I’m Sarah Foster.’
‘Oh yes. I’m Georgina Montgomery and we’re in the Cottage, just at the other end there.’ She peered over Sarah’s shoulder. ‘You’ve just moved in? Sorry to be so nosy. I’m – well, we all are – desperately curious to know who swept in and carried off this lovely house! And I said to Monty, I’m just going to pop over, just pop over, to say a little hello, and he said “Jolly good idea, darling,” and here I am! He’s resting. Bit of a farewell do last night for Lara and Henry . . .’ She passed a hand over her forehead. ‘Diana knows how to pour the drinks – that’s all I’ll say about that.’ She gave a loud laugh, like a honking duck. ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’
‘My husband is upstairs,’ said Sarah, not wanting to explain further. ‘We’d love to have you over for –’ She frowned, watching Georgina’s eager face to see if this was the right thing to say. ‘For soon . . . would be lovely,’ she finished, wishing Daniel would wake up.
Was this what you did with neighbours? How did you live, in a house, in a street like this? How did you do any of it? Houses, marriage, families, careers, futures. She didn’t know the rules. Every new thing tripped her up.
The first evening after they’d got back from their honeymoon, spent in Portofino, flushed with sex and sun and wine, Sarah had set to making her new husband a meal, and hadn’t realised that you cooked onions gently in butter or oil on a low flame. She had turned the heat up to the highest setting, burnt them to a cinder, and the neighbours in the tall, packed five-storey house had all, every one of them, complained. Sarah had gone into her bedroom and cried at the failure of it, the crushing reality of life compared to her in a headscarf, thong sandals and a red dress, sitting by the sea eating spaghetti alle vongole. Daniel had cooked instead.
The first time he’d asked her out to dinner he’d taken her to a little restaurant off the King’s Road and halfway through she had disclosed she’d never eaten out before. ‘Monica’s mother took us to tea when I stayed with them in the holidays,’ she’d had to explain, flushing with shame. ‘But not for meals.’
She could not explain what she was remembering was restaurants with her mother, leaning across the table groaning with all the food she could order: lobsters, veal escalopes, gratin dauphinoise, grabbing their skinny little arms, hissing: ‘When the waiter takes that couple’s plates into the kitchen, we leave. We get up and walk, then we run, you understand? It’s a joke, Victoria, don’t snivel for God’s sake! It’s all a bit of fun.’
She and Vic never ate the meals, their small stomachs curdling with fear about what was to come. Their mother, of course, merrily guzzling everything down until she was ill the day after, unable to move. ‘A bilious attack – leave me alone, you cretins,’ she’d hiss, and the curtains would be drawn, and there was no one to take them to school or make them food.
She hadn’t known what to order that first time with him and sat staring in misery at the menu. And then, because he was Daniel, he’d understood. He’d known what to do. ‘That’s first, that’s second – you know how it works really, Sarah,’ he’d said. ‘Pick something you like the look of. That’s all that matters.’
‘It’s exciting, you see, a new family, on The Row,’ Georgina Montgomery was saying. ‘Might as well tell you now, I wanted Monts to buy the house, but he wouldn’t. Said it wasn’t worth it. And then they knocked down the price and you nipped in there! I’m furious about it, but he wouldn’t be moved. And here you are!’
Floorboards creaked above Sarah, and she started. She wasn’t sure if Daniel had heard this. He had a habit of wandering around with no clothes on. Her fingers tightened on the door. She wished fervently, right then, that it was just another ordinary day in Islington, and she was fighting her way through the crowds out of the Tube station after rehearsal, cello strapped to her back, clutching her string bag on her way to Chapel Market, plucking Daniel out of a pub where he’d be discussing art or literature with some old Islington roué, staggering back up the four flights of stairs, putting two eggs to boil on the tiny gas hob, collapsing on the bed together, entwined, pulling each other’s clothes off, noises rising, the heat, the feeling of him inside her, pushing, holding back, then deeper . . . deeper . . .
She shook herself as a breeze ruffled the overgrown jasmine climbing up beside the front door, plucking at her long flowery dress. Behind her, she heard Daniel’s feet, thundering down the top flight of stairs. Play a part, Sarah, she told herself. Play it as if your life depends on it.
So she smiled. ‘I’m glad to hear you wanted the house too. Makes us feel we’ve got good taste. Might we invite you and your husband over for a drink soon?’
‘Do, do. Pop a note through the door. And we’ll explain who everyone is, what you need to know.’ Georgina’s eyes glittered. ‘You’ve met Diana. I happened to see you arrive, you see. Diana’s a lovely lady. Now, we’re the corner cottage, there. One of the small houses. Not really The Row. But we’re right on the Heath.’ She pointed behind them at a little redbrick gatehouse, one of two flanking the wooden gate at the other end of the oval. Beyond it rose the trees of Hampstead Heath. ‘I told Monty, I’d only live on The Row, you see. My aunt lived here and it was my life’s ambition to own a house here one day. She was Number 4. Professor Gupta lives there now.’ She leaned forward. ‘He’s Indian, you know. Keeps himself to himself.’ She looked as if she was about to say something else, then added, ‘Poor Lara and Henry. I do feel for them, but of course, you know.’
Daniel’s voice boomed out behind Sarah. ‘Good afternoon.’ He put his arm round her shoulders, extending the other to Georgina. ‘I’m Daniel Forster.’
Georgina actually lowered her lashes, and looked up at Daniel through them. ‘Good afternoon,’ she said. ‘Georgina Montgomery. Very nice to meet you.’ She tapped the glass on the porch, and Sarah saw then the curling entwined shapes that she’d noticed on the way in were letters. A. E. T. Georgina followed her gaze. ‘Ah, yes. You know, Sir Adrian bought the house for Eveline. She was Russian,’ she said, nodding at Daniel. Years with Daniel enabled Sarah to understand what people like Georgina meant. She meant Eveline was Jewish. ‘And you know what happened . . .’ Georgina trailed off, and looked down.
‘No?’ said Sarah politely – what else could she say?
‘Well, she killed herself. Here in the house. Weeks after she gave birth to their daughter. Oh dear . . . I hate being the one to tell you . . .’
‘Oh no,’ Daniel said softly. ‘That’s terrible.’ His arm tightened round his wife.
‘He’d had the whole house remodelled.’ She pointed behind them, a regretful small smile playing about her lips, as though she was sad about being the one to tell them. ‘Their initials are everywhere. Even on the tiles. A.E.T. It’s short for Aeternum. Eternity in Latin.’
Sarah turned. She saw, stretching away from her, the star pattern she had admired on the way up. How it was not a pattern at all, but the letters again. A.E.T. Eternity.
Georgina was gabbling now, the muscles in her shiny face working fast, eyes darting from Sarah to Daniel. ‘I know Lara loves the house. But she’s awfully glad it’s over, poor lamb. I don’t know her well, but I hear that’s what they say, though I’m no gossip, Sarah – that’s not me. The swing in the garden is where her husband Tony proposed to Lara. She stayed here the night before she was married. Lovely girl. Very – reserved, no surprise with all she’s been through. Ever so clever, she’s a photographer you know. Takes lots of photos of round here. So that’s nice! Yes, we’re all very close here.’
‘We’ll be glad to know them,’ Daniel said in his warm, make-all-things-better voice. ‘Now, Mrs Montgomery, I really ought to get on with hauling my wife’s possessions inside.’
‘Time and tide!’ said Georgina with a tinkling laugh. She bared her teeth at them, eyes widening again. ‘Well, well! We’ll have that drink, then!’ She looked expectantly at Sarah. ‘Soon! Welcome once again.’
Then she turned, and trotted down the path, letting the gate swing shut with what seemed like some relish to Sarah, who stood watching her go.
Daniel blew on her neck. ‘She’s crazy.’
‘Did you think so?’
‘Oh, absolutely. Maybe there’s something in the water this high up out of town. I told you we should have stayed in Islington.’
Sarah felt a bit sick. It was being ruined. ‘Did you know any of that? About the owners, and the house, and all of it?’
‘No. But I wouldn’t listen to her. I don’t think any of it’s true, and even
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