Even now, I can remember the first time I saw the house as clearly as if there were a video of it playing in my head.
Danny, Martha, and I had driven up from London together, the force of our collective will keeping my elderly Citroen from one of its increasingly frequent breakdowns. Cold night air had forced its way into the car around the loose windowpanes as I coaxed it along at speeds for which I could feel it reproaching me. I think we all had a feeling of adventure that evening, leaving the city as so many other people had been pouring into it, going against the tide.
Lucas’s directions had been easy to follow until the last part. We came off the motorway and soon were lost in the maze of minor roads that laced across southern Oxfordshire.A part of me was glad;I wanted to be ready before seeing him, but the miles had disappeared too quickly. The half hour we spent shuttling along the same dark lanes again and again had given me time to think. Finally I pulled up at the side of the road in the village we had been circling.
Danny leaned forward between the seats.“This place is like the end of the world.”
He was right. Even for a village, Stoneborough was nothing. The cottages, five or six of them huddled together, had an empty air; only one was showing any light, the blue wash of television seeping through the net curtain in an upstairs window.There was a pond,its edges sharp with frozen reeds, and a village green that was little more than a patch of crisp white grass. No one had been across it since the dew fell.
“We can’t go round again,” I said. “We’re going to have to ask.”
“Can’t we call him?” said Martha.
“There’s no reception.”
Across the road was a pub called the White Swan, a squat stone building whose roof covered it like an oversized hat. The upper windows looked out slyly from underneath. On the ground floor the curtains were drawn, but a rim of yellow light was visible around them.
“It’s like the place doesn’t want to be found,” said Martha. She opened the passenger door and got out. Her usual long stride curtailed by the cocktail dress that clung tightly above her knees, she crossed the beam of the headlights and went in.
The radio was too loud now that the car had stopped so I turned it off.Danny leaned forward again.“It had better not be much further.It’s gone nine–I’m dying for a drink.” His breath carried an unmistakable whisky tang.
“You’ve been taking nips from that hip flask all the way. I’ve seen you in the rearview.” I twisted round to look at him. The light from the pub’s carriage lamp cast the planes of his face into sharp relief. He looked elfish.
“It’s New Year’s Eve, Joanna.”
“Light me a cigarette, will you?” I asked. “Mine are in the boot.” He rummaged around among the newspapers on the backseat and found the packet. The match flared and died. “Thanks.”
“Your hands are shaking.”
“Are they?” I held one out flat and observed my fingers in the light from the dash.“Maybe it’s the thought of the big house.These things intimidate English teachers’ daughters, you know.” I shrugged and wound down the window to blow out the smoke. It was a policy I had developed with Danny: to reveal my weakness rather than give him the pleasure of discovering it himself.
“That’s one of the things I like about you. You’re always so honest about your humble beginnings.” He sat back and started flicking through old text messages on his mobile.
“It’ll be a thrill for me to be allowed above stairs.”
Martha came out of the pub, the heavy wooden door slamming shut behind her. “That way, about a mile on. I think we must have gone past it at least three times. There’s no sign on the road, apparently, just a track on the left that leads into a wood.” She pulled her red fake-fur jacket more tightly around her shoulders. “It is so cold out here.”
“I thought New Yorkers were used to hard winters,” said Danny.
We drove on out of the village. Living in London, I had forgotten how dark it got in the country. Hedges flashed past, illuminated only by our headlights and falling back into blackness behind us.We saw several pairs of small eyes in the undergrowth. When we’d gone about a mile I slowed down and started to look for the driveway. We were coming into a wood. Huge trees made a skeletal tunnel over the road, their bare branches tangled and swaying eerily. I pulled slowly along the verge for a couple of minutes.
“There,” said Martha. “That must be it.” I turned and we started up a rough track. I had expected to be able to see the house from the foot of the drive and squinted forward looking for lights, but there was nothing, just an intricate mesh of leafless branches opening up in front of us and pulling tight as a net behind us as soon as we passed. I thought of those fairy-tale woods where the trees sprout at supernatural speeds to ensnare those foolish enough to enter, but there were no signs of new growth here. Everything around us was dead or dormant, in the widow’s weeds of winter. We fell silent, as if the looming and falling away of the branches were weaving an enchantment around us. The car made heavy work of the road; we bumped and lurched over potholes for the best part of another mile before we veered left and found ourselves on a circular gravel drive.
I stopped the engine. There, in front of us, was the house. Stone-borough Manor, the Cotswold stone pile–it really was the only description–recently inherited by Lucas, my best friend.
Three stories high, it reared out of the night as if it were facing down the darkness. There were seven windows on the second and third floors, all blankly reflecting the tiny sliver of moon, but light spilled out of every one on the ground floor onto the two small lawns in front of the house. An avenue of yews lined the long path to the door, which was sheltered by a portico on two smooth round columns. I felt a pang of anxiety. Lucas had described it to me pretty well, but even so, the reality of it shocked me. How could it not change things between us?
We unloaded our bags from the boot and I locked the car, although who would break into it so far from civilization was anyone’s guess. I held Danny’s arm as we made our way up the path; the flagstones were slippery with frost and the heels I’d just changed into didn’t offer much in the way of grip. Martha rang the bell and we heard the echo of it reaching back into the house like a whisper. For a minute or two there was nothing and then the shape of a body appeared behind the stained glass panels in the door. Suddenly there he was, lit from behind and grinning. I saw immediately that he had lost weight.
“Lucas, it’s incredible,” I said, stepping forward. He put his arms around me and held me tightly. The collar of his dinner jacket was rough on my cheek.
“Hello,” he said, next to my ear.
He let me go and embraced Martha, then clapped Danny on the arm. “Mate. Come in. Did you find it all right?”
“Not without some effort,” said Danny. “Fuck, it’s fantastic. You kept this a secret. Why haven’t I been here before?”
“Well, it was Patrick’s. He did his entertaining in London. He was quite private here; it was a sort of family place.”
We left our bags by the door. We were standing in a central hall lit only by two large table lamps on a wooden chest. Their light pooled onto a black-and-white-checkered floor. Around the edges of the room were a number of marble busts on pedestals; one of them, I saw, was wearing our college tie.Above us,the upper floors of the house spiraled away like the inside of a snail shell, getting darker and darker as they receded upward. Our voices echoed coldly off the walls, rising away from us until they were swallowed by the body of the place. There was a strong scent of old-fashioned furniture polish.
“We’ll have the champagne now everyone’s here.” Lucas opened a door into an enormous drawing room. There was an immediate rise in the air temperature. The room was dominated by a white marble fireplace carved with an oak-leaf and acorn design, and in the grate a fire was burning, sending up flames a foot high. Brocade curtains hung from ceiling to floor at the three windows, their sun-faded rubies and greens complementing the ivy-pattern border of the artfully threadbare carpet. Here, too, the light came only from lamps dotted around on low tables and from a pair of thick church candles on the mantelpiece. In front of the fire there were two grand Chesterfield sofas of burnished burgundy leather that looked as if they had been there since the house was built. They were so much a part of the room I could imagine that they had grown there, sprung from seed in the carpet. Sitting on them were Rachel and a man I didn’t recognize.They stood up and Danny bounded over, caught Rachel in his arms and spun her around and around.
“Put me down,” she laughed. “Put me down, Danny. You’ll ruin my dress.”
He set her down on the carpet and stood back to scrutinize her. She was wearing a silver slip dress, crumpled like tin foil, deliberately torn at the shoulder and hem. The look was catfight on the catwalk. “Nice.” He nodded with approval and pouted at her.
She turned to the man and smiled at him, “Greg, this is Danny– the inimitable–and Joanna and Martha.”
“Ah, the new boyfriend,” said Danny.
“God, you’re rude.” She hit him lightly with the back of her hand. “Not quite so new, either. It’s been three months now.”
“Good to meet you.” Greg held out a large hand and I shook it. His grip was strong and dry. Although I’d almost managed to get rid of the shyness that near crippled me as a teenager, there was still the odd person who could revive it. He was going to be one of them, obviously. Rachel’s boyfriends were always good-looking; Greg had short brown hair and warm brown eyes fringed by long lashes. It was also plain that he was someone who had to encounter a razor more than once a day to stay clean-shaven; the shadow around his chin and a light tan gave him a vaguely dissolute aspect. That wasn’t what intimidated me, though. Although he looked to be only three or four years older than us, there was something indefinably adult about him. When I smiled at him, I found he was looking at me as if he were taking my measure. I looked down again quickly, in case I was unwittingly giving something away.
“Where’s Michael?” asked Martha. “Isn’t he supposed to be here?”
Lucas turned from the highly polished table where he was putting out champagne glasses. “He’s upstairs, getting a couple of hours’ sleep. I don’t think he got home last night.”
“Jesus, why do people do it to themselves?” Martha went over to look at the framed photographs on the mantelpiece. She picked one up and looked at it closely. “What can possibly be so urgent between Christmas and New Year that he can’t go home?”
“They’ve got some big deal on. Hostile takeover, from what I can gather. He looked knackered. But I suppose that’s why bankers earn those salaries.”
To me, Lucas looked knackered himself. Apart from the weight loss, his skin was pale. His hair, though black and curly as ever, didn’t have its normal blue luster and was in need of a cut. The champagne bottle gave a hollow sob as he pulled out its cork. He handed out the glasses then folded himself down next to me on one of the Chesterfields.Taking out a packet of cigarettes,he lit one,tilting his head to one side in his diffident way. I found the gesture strangely reassuring, a familiar thing in foreign surroundings. “So, how’re you doing?” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
“I’ve missed you,” I said.
He looked down at his knee, where his fingers were picking at a loose thread in the seam of his trousers. “I should have called you.”
“For God’s sake, Lucas, that doesn’t matter. How are you?”
“Okay, really.” He smiled sadly. “It’s just that I can’t get over the idea he’s not coming back. It doesn’t seem right that someone like that could just be extinguished.” He drew hard on his cigarette and a column of ash fell onto his trousers. “To have that much–I don’t know– life force,
and for there to be nothing left. . . . So soon after Mum died, too. Three months–Jo, six months ago I had both of them. The two people I loved most in the world. And he chose it–that’s what I’ll never understand.”
All the careful words I’d prepared deserted me, so I took his hand and squeezed it. He returned the pressure and then rubbed his thumb slowly against my fingers, as if it were he who was trying to reassure me.
“He liked you, you know.”
“I liked him. I’ve never met anyone like him,” I said truthfully. I had been shocked to hear about Patrick’s suicide. He had been more like a father to Lucas than an uncle. I had met him on a number of occasions, mostly when we’d been at college and he’d taken Lucas and me out to lunch. Even now, the times that I’d spent in his company were especially bright beads among the memories of my university career. Patrick had overwhelmed me. Although he must have been in his late fifties even then, he gave the impression of great strength, both physical and mental. His black hair had been graying a little at the temples but still looked vivid. There was something Homeric about him, as if a measure of the old heroic blood had somehow survived down into a less noble age.
He’d also made me feel as if I had something to offer. One time at the Randolph Hotel, when I’d felt intimidated by the lunching grandees and the formality of the dining room, I’d been trying to describe to him a particularly brash girl in the year above whom Lucas and I both loathed. Although I couldn’t remember what my sound bite had been, I still thought about how he had reached across the table for my hand and said, “You must write one day. You have a wonderful gift for metaphor.” From anyone else it would have sounded affected, but from him, as successful as he was and with what I perceived as his hotline to the cultural hub of things, it was the best compliment I’d ever had. Although our relationship had never been close enough for me to tell him so, he became a sort of inspiration to me, someone who thought I was worth encouraging. In his presence, the world opened up, ready for conquering. And he, this man who could have done anything, had decided to take his own life.
“He hoped you were my girlfriend.”
I laughed to cover my surprise.The question of the relationship between us was an old one, although we had never spoken about it ourselves before.
The first time I had seen Lucas was in our tutor’s room at Oxford in Freshers Week. He was wearing a navy fisherman’s sweater, jeans, and Converse shoes, and despite his height, appeared swallowed by the brown velvet sofa with the dodgy springs which we soon learned not to sit on. He didn’t fight it or nervously try to sit further forward, just let himself disappear into it. I immediately put it down to a self-assurance bred by one of the famous public schools; there were plenty of examples already walking the quads as if they were on their ancestral estates and propping up the college bar with the confidence of the long established. I found them excruciating. One part of me was intimidated and envious that people of eighteen and nineteen could be so confident; the other part wondered how they could be so obtuse as never to experience a moment’s self-doubt.
I soon realized that Lucas was not of that type. After the meeting, in which our tutor had prescribed huge swaths of Homer for translation almost overnight, made a number of jokes in Latin, and assumed on our part a deep familiarity with authors of whom I had barely heard, the five of us repaired to the junior common room for coffee and cigarettes. Lucas, who had hardly spoken in the meeting, turned out to have been to a very low-key private day school in London and lived with his mother, a writer for children, on the borders of West Hampstead. I had watched his long fingers as he rolled an expert cigarette and waited in vain for him to tell me more. He was reserved in a way I hadn’t encountered before.
It was Danny who had always had the line in flashy confidence. He was one of those people who seemed to start university knowing everything and everyone already. On the very first night, when the rest of us had herded together for our virgin trip to the college bar, he had only been able to join us for one drink because he was going on to a party at Balliol.
“He was like this at school,” Lucas had said, shredding a beer mat.
“You went to school together?”
He nodded. “Only for sixth form. And he didn’t start until halfway through the second term–got kicked out of somewhere smarter. But he was center of attention by lunchtime on his first day.”
“No, actually he’s all right. He’s good fun.”
Over the next few weeks I had learned about the friendship between Danny and Lucas. It had an unusual dynamic. If you’d asked any of us whether we thought that loud, sociable Danny with his wardrobe of cutting-edge urban clothes would have gotten on so well with quiet, kind Lucas in his sweaters and jeans, we would have laughed. But it became clear that there was a strong symbiosis between them. Lucas appreciated Danny because he took it as read that any friend of his was part of the in crowd, and so Lucas was, right from the start. As I was Lucas’s friend, all invitations also extended to me, and that was how the two of us, who, left to our own devices, probably would have spent four years flying undetected by the social radar, came to know a lot of the set at Oxford who lived their lives on larger canvases.
My own relationship with Danny was complicated. I think if I hadn’t been close to Lucas I would have been beneath his notice. As it was, he was obliged to acknowledge me. Sometimes he and I got on quite well. Other times I knew he saw me as an irritating third wheel in their friendship.
Because it wasn’t just Lucas for whom the relationship was important. Lucas provided Danny with something that he didn’t get elsewhere: simple, genuine friendship. At eighteen, Danny’s self-assurance had alienated those less confident, but Lucas had seemed oblivious to it. He also gave him a sort of grounding: he was Danny’s earth wire. From the sound of it, Danny had been out of his parents’ control–such as it was–for years, but when things got a bit much and he needed perspective, it was Lucas he sought out.
Sometimes at college Danny pushed himself too hard. Not academically; there was never any danger of that. Annoyingly, there never needed to be. He’d done English with Rachel and he had the greatest natural academic flair of us all. It was galling, especially when he was the only one to get a first. No, when Danny pushed himself too hard at college, it was a question of too much drink, too many drugs, too many nights without sleep. When that happened, he went to find Lucas and after being talked down, he would go to ground in his room for a few days, swaddled in a dressing gown and piteously downing cold medication as if the whole thing wasn’t self-inflicted. Even in that, he managed to exude glamour. Martha and I had talked in the past about how Danny was a little bit like one of the really hedonistic rock stars, a Steven Tyler or Mick Jagger. And as we were in his orbit, we did feel as if some of his star quality reflected on us, but it wasn’t just that. It was enough to know that there was someone out there doing the stuff we talked about. We didn’t have to do the drugs because Danny did them; we could talk as if we knew all about it without actually risking it ourselves. Danny made us feel we were like him–rock ’n’ roll–when in fact we were nothing of the sort. We liked the version of ourselves that he made us feel we were. And to some extent I think he liked us because we were the background against which he shone.
Ironically, the only person who could match him in excess was Lucas. He didn’t do drugs but he drank more than anyone else I knew. Whenever Danny was in a drinking phase, he could rely on Lucas to be his brother in arms. Lucas was both a steady drinker and a binge drinker, able to keep up on even the most extreme bender. Most of the time at college he had been a fun person to drink with, but occasionally underneath the jolly social-drinking façade, I saw an edge of need that none of the rest of us had, even Danny. I had never mentioned it–it was something I didn’t even like to think about myself–but now and again it had drawn the attention of those in authority. Once in particular, I remember waiting outside in the corridor while our tutor kept Lucas back for a minute. I hadn’t deliberately listened but I couldn’t avoid catching his final words. “Just remember the old Greek wisdom, Lucas,” he’d said. “Mηδε`ν’α´ γαν. Nothing in excess.
In our first term there were several occasions when Lucas and I sat up in the library doing all-nighters when I hoped our growing friendship would shift sideways into something different. We had a surprising amount in common for people from very different backgrounds. We hated sports, especially the team varieties, and loved indie music, which we listened to all the time.We became close quickly.We worked together on essays, sharing notes and breaks in the pub and cooking supper together a couple of times a week to avoid eating in the college dining hall. There were even a few days in the middle of that term when I began to wonder if my feelings for him were reciprocated.
One night, though, I had been out with Martha, with whom I had also become friends, and decided on my drunken return that it would be a good idea to go and see Lucas for a nightcap. Lucas was out but his roommate, a historian from Liverpool, had been in and had a bottle of wine open. He poured me a glass and I talked to him while I waited. Lucas had been over to St. John’s to see a school friend and didn’t get back until past two, by which time I had been drunk enough to be kissing the historian when he opened the door.
After that, things had subtly changed. There was no longer any doubt.As far as Lucas was concerned,I was his friend and that was as far as it went. Martha tried to cheer me up by saying that he clearly liked me and that I’d dented his confidence, but I couldn’t believe that. I was bitterly disappointed and furious with myself about the historian, whose name I now struggled even to remember. I went home for Christmas feeling wretched. I’m not sure how much my family enjoyed having me back that holiday.
Gradually, though, I got used to the idea and soon became aware that lots of people envied my closeness to Lucas, platonic as it was. Men liked him and so did women. He was good-looking in a moderate way, but it was his kindness and lack of interest in fighting for a place in the college pecking order that made him different. I looked at him now and felt a flood of affection for him. Nothing had changed in all the intervening years; he was the same sweet man.
“I’m going to go and wake Michael up,” said Martha. “He’ll miss everything otherwise.”
“Okay,” said Lucas, looking away from me. “He’s in the second room along on the left on the second floor. By the painting of the woman with the enormous hat. Great picture–you’ll see it properly tomorrow.”
I was looking forward to seeing Michael. He’d been so busy at work that I hadn’t seen him at all before Christmas. I missed his dry sense of humor.
“Do you have plans for the weekend, Lucas?” asked Greg. His voice was deep.
“Nothing specific. I thought we’d just relax, have a few drinks, you know. I’ll show you the rest of the house tomorrow and then I thought I’d cook dinner.”
“Lucas is a great cook,” Rachel explained to Greg. “The best of any of us, by far.”
“Oh, come on,” he said. “Anyway, about the house. I don’t want to set the agenda here. I didn’t earn this place; it’s mine purely by good luck–or bad. I don’t want it to be a big thing; I’d rather we thought of it as belonging to all of us.” He threw the butt of his cigarette into the fire and stood up to pour some more drinks.
I got up, too, and went over to the other Chesterfield. I kneeled behind it to speak to Rachel, resting my forearms along its studded back. “You’ve had your hair cut,” I said. It was short, not more than an inch all over, with a small fringe that stopped precipitately above her high forehead.
“Thank you. It’s quite ‘fashion’; you don’t think I look like Joan of Arc?”
I laughed. “Not at all–far too beautiful.”
“That’s bollocks.” Rachel’s directness still had the power to surprise me. It had taken me almost a year after we met to understand that she didn’t mean to be rude.
The door opened and Martha reappeared with Michael. Even after a nap, he looked exhausted. It was amazing that he could do the hours he did. The only thing I could think was that after several years, his body had become accustomed to it and no longer expected reasonable amounts of rest. He had developed a useful type of narcolepsy that allowed him to fall asleep at any point when he wasn’t required to be doing something else, no matter how uncomfortable his position at the time. I gave him a hug.
Danny went out to his bag in the hall and returned with a bottle. “Why did the Mexican push his wife off a cliff ?” he asked the room at large.
“Tequila, tequila, tequila.”
“I think Patrick had some shot glasses.” Lucas opened the sideboard and peered in toward the back of the shelf. With a chink, he produced seven tiny glasses. “I’ll go and find some lemon.”
Martha perched on the back of the sofa next to me. She was excited; I could tell from the twinkling in her gray eyes. Her long brown hair was tied up in a sleek arrangement that made her look older and more sophisticated than usual. I felt a rush of affection for her. “I might have known Danny’d do this,” she said. “Things are going to get messy now.”
“You know how much I hate tequila.”
Lucas brought salt and a couple of lemons. He took out a penknife and cut one of them into eighths while Michael filled the glasses. I felt my usual literal gut reaction at the prospect as I held my left hand sideways and let him tip salt into the dent that appeared at the base of my thumb.
“The anatomical snuffbox,” he said.
“Let’s not get medical about this, Michael.” Danny held out his hand.
“He may have to,” I said.
“Everyone ready? Okay, go.”
We pressed our tongues to the salt, knocked back the tequila and clamped our mouths over the lemon pieces. I struggled against the impulse to gag. “Why do we put ourselves through it?”
“Because it’s party juice, brings out the South American in you,” said Danny grinning. It was difficult not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. He had always been a fire-starter, the one of us who could kick off a three-day party by opening a bottle and putting the radio on. Martha looked as if she were about to do the military two-step across the carpet. Tequila seemed to hit her immediately. Her eyes were glistening.
“What time is it?” asked Lucas.
“Shall we have some music?” He crouched in front of a powerful-looking stereo, selected a CD from the pile and slid it into the machine.
Danny grinned as he heard the first bars of Shirley Bassey’s “History Repeating.” “Good choice, man.” The song wrapped its rich, rough sound around us so completely it seemed to be oozing out of the walls. We all danced, even Lucas, who usually appointed himself DJ to avoid having to. Danny stood in front of the fire, gyrating his hips so provocatively that I felt indecent for seeing it. His jeans, which he always wore at holster level, looked about to slide off him entirely.
After a few songs, I started to cough. Clearly we had raised old dust. Greg, dancing next to me, touched my arm. “Are you all right? You’re asthmatic.” It wasn’t a question and I wondered how he knew.
“Inhaler’s in my coat,”I said.“I’ll get it.”My chest was getting tighter. Near my diaphragm, my lungs felt inert; my breath was shallow and ineffectual.
It was colder in the hall again. Quiet, too. Although I knew the music was loud, the drawing-room door was so solid that I could only just hear it. I groped quickly in my coat pocket for the inhaler. People are confused about asthma; they think that you can’t breathe in. In fact, what you can’t do is breathe out. It’s like being buried alive; there’s nowhere for the dead air to go.
After a couple of shots of Ventolin, I began to relax. I coughed to clear my chest and the sound echoed through the house. I looked up, noticing the balconied floors tiered above me, unlit. All the doors leading off the hall were closed. There was a passageway opposite, leading darkly away to the back of the house.
I had the sudden sense that there were eyes on me. “Lucas?” I said, more to puncture the silence than expecting an answer. I knew I was the only person in the house who wasn’t in the drawing room. My skin prickled. The memory of my own voice played in my ear. I took a breath and forced myself to stand still for a minute and look into the unlit corners away from the lamps and up above my head to the landings. I half expected to see someone there, leaning over the banisters watching me. There was nothing. And yet there was. It seemed to me that there was something lurking, something that was not benevolent. With a sudden swell,the darkness seemed to gather around me.A rushing started in my ears, as if the walls themselves were whispering. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I yanked the drawing-room door open and threw myself back into the blaze of light and sound.
“All right?” Lucas was standing just inside.
“Just wheezing a bit. I’ve had some Ventolin now.” I smiled. Back with everyone else, my fear immediately felt irrational and ridiculous.
“Good.” He handed me my glass. “We’ve finished the champagne I brought up. I’ll go and get some more so we’re ready for midnight. Back in a minute.”
I sat down on the edge of the fireguard, glad to have the heat on my back. The chill was still on my skin. Michael came to sit next to me and we watched the dancing, Danny with Martha, Greg with Rachel. Rachel stood on tiptoes to whisper something in Greg’s ear; he laughed and bent his head to kiss her.
“Have you met him before?” I asked Michael quietly.
“Once, a few weeks ago. He’s away a lot with work. He’s phenomenally bright.”
Lucas came back with a tray of fresh glasses and two more bottles tucked under his arm. “Three minutes to go.”
I decided my lungs were working well enough to manage a cigarette. One of the things I appreciated about my real friends, all of whom were around me, was that they never tried to make me give up, despite my asthma. They knew I knew I should and that was enough.
New Year’s Eve was my least favorite night of the year. I didn’t like the weight of expectation it carried, both in the sense that everyone felt obliged to have a good time, as if what they did would set a pattern for the coming year, and with the idea that this year would be different, as if on the turn of midnight we could cast off our old weak-willed selves and become new, better people. I especially disliked resolutions. You can take too many long, hard looks at yourself.
“Turn on the radio, Martha,” said Lucas, tearing the foil from one of the bottles. We were just in time: Big Ben had already started tolling. The sound of it made me shiver, as it always did. Another year gone.
“Happy New Year!” The cork flew out and Lucas poured the champagne, streams of bubbles running down the sides of the glasses. He handed me one and kissed me on the cheek, close enough to my mouth almost to touch my lips.
I returned his look as he pulled away. “Happy New Year.”
“Happier, anyway,” he said. “Cheers.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Danny turn to cut another lemon. I touched Lucas’s sleeve. “Let’s go outside for a cigarette. He’s doing more tequilas.” We took our drinks and slipped out. Lucas snapped on the light in the passageway, which I could now see led to the kitchen.The checkered floor of the hall gave way to large flagstones and roughly whitewashed stone walls. I felt safe with him close to me. Of course there had been no one else in the house. I had imagined it in the heightened, panicky mind-set of my asthma.
We took a turn just before the kitchen and came to a door that was heavily bolted. Lucas pulled back the locks and we stepped outside. At first I couldn’t see anything, but then objects began to draw themselves out of the night, edging themselves round with indigo and assuming form. We were at the side of the house on a sort of high terrace about fifteen feet above a garden, which stretched away from us over a great expanse of lawn to a rim of black trees. It was bitingly cold, even though we had taken coats from the stand. I looked at Lucas and made out chin, nose, and glittering eyes. He handed me a cigarette and lit it, a small explosion of light. Above us, the stars were needle-sharp.
“There’s Orion’s Belt and the Plough. Can you see?” I pointed.
“I’m hopeless at constellations. People show me but I can never see them for myself.”
“I used to be like that. Until that time we went to Greece and someone showed me Orion’s Belt and now I can always find it.”
We sat down on the balustrade that ran around the edge of the terrace and I swung my legs out over the drop. A sole milky cloud moved off the moon. Below us the lawn sparkled with frost. “This is an incredible place. I can’t believe it’s yours.”
“I never imagined that Patrick would leave it to me. No, that’s a stupid thing to say; who else would he leave it to?” He ran a hand through his hair.“I didn’t expect him to die,anyway,and somehow I thought the house would go when he did. It was so much a part of him.” The tip of his cigarette glowed orange. “I got pretty much the lot. The flat in Hampstead is sold already and I’ve found an agent to sell the gallery and the stock for me. I couldn’t do anything with it. I don’t know the first thing about art and people bought from Patrick because of his reputation. I mean, who’d buy art from me?”
I shivered and moved closer to him for warmth. Without thinking, I slipped my arm through his. I had done it on a hundred other occasions but tonight it wasn’t comfortable or uncomplicated. In the past he wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but now Lucas turned to look at me and our eyes met for a moment. I looked down quickly in case he thought I was–what? Flirting? I was embarrassed that he might think that and yet part of me wanted him to. Something was shifting, I could feel it. Why had he told me that Patrick had hoped I was his girlfriend? And that kiss earlier. I wondered whether he would lean in and kiss me now but he didn’t and the moment passed. We sat in silence, the garden below us completely still. Now that my eyes were accustomed, I could see it quite distinctly, the formal bed below us, planted with pampas grasses and leafless rosebushes, the lawn and the evergreen laurels that bordered it where it met the wall at the back of the house.
“You could do anything here,” I said after a while. “There’s absolutely no one to hear you.”
“I’m serious about what I said earlier. I really do want you–and the others–to think of it as your place. It’s no fun being king of the castle if you’re on your own.”
I put my arms around him and squeezed. “You’re brilliant.”
After a little while, I grew more used to the cold and we stayed outside for some time, smoking more cigarettes and feeling the silence of the country night around us. Finally, though, Lucas stood up. “Let’s go in. I’m freezing my balls off out here,” he said, taking my hand as I swung my legs back over the balustrade.
Inside, Michael was asleep on one of the Chesterfields. Greg and Rachel had gone to bed. The fire was burning down and the tequila was gone, the bottle on its side next to a pile of eviscerated lemon pieces. Martha was crouched at the stereo with a pile of CDs on either side of her. “Can’t decide what to play,” she said. Danny was sitting cross-legged in front of the dying fire rolling a spliff, the tip of his tongue sticking out between his teeth.
“Do you want another drink?” said Lucas, holding a champagne bottle up to the light.
I shook my head.
“Yeah, it’s time for bed. I’ll show you your room. I’ve just got to make sure everything’s safe down here and set the burglar alarm. It terrifies me to think what would happen if anyone got in here.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse. Copyright © 2008 by Lucie Whitehouse. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.