She recognizes the handwriting on the envelope. She drinks from her
mug of tea, looks across the kitchen table at Henry, sees him absorbed
in the triage of the morning post. One pile for the bin, one pile for
later, one for now. He uses a paper knife when opening letters. Not
a kitchen knife, an actual slender, dull-edged blade made for the
purpose. The children silent, reading. Rain outside the windows
puckering the pond.
Laura wills the letter to remain unnoticed. It’s been forwarded
from her parents’ address.
‘You know Belinda Redknapp?’ she says.
‘Should I?’ Henry inattentive.
‘One of the school mothers. You rather fancied her. Husband like
‘They all have husbands like frogs.’
The bankers, lawyers, insurance company executives whose children
are their children’s friends, whose wealth makes Henry feel poor.
‘Anyway, she wants to meet Aidan Massey.’
Henry looks up, surprised.
‘She thinks he’s sexy.’
Carrie pauses her absorbed scrutiny of the Beano.
‘The man on Daddy’s programme.’
‘He’s an evil dwarf,’ says Henry. ‘I want to kill him.’
The letter lies by her plate, immense as a beach towel, shouting her
unmarried name: Laura Kinross. She wants to muffle it, mute it, gag it.
Pick up a section of the newspaper, glance at it, lay it down just so. But
the desire inhibits the action. She’s ashamed to discover that she means
to leave the letter unopened until Henry has gone. So to mitigate the
shame she makes no move to conceal the envelope, saying to Fate, See,
I’m doing nothing. If I’m found out I’ll accept the consequences.
Jack is interested in the proposal to kill Aidan Massey.
‘How would you kill him, Daddy?’
‘Hello, Jack. Good to have you with us.’
Laura frowns. She reaches out one hand to stop Jack smearing his
sleeve in the butter. She hates it when Henry talks like that. Jack’s
too dreamy, he says.
‘Well.’ Henry puts on the face he makes when summoning facts
from his brain. He actually touches one finger to his brow, as if
pressing a button. ‘I’d tell the make-up girl to go on adding makeup
until he couldn’t breathe. Go on adding it until he’s got no features
left. Just smooth and round like a ball.’
Jack is awed silent by the detail.
Henry gathers up the pile of junk mail and takes it to the bin, which
is already so full the lid won’t close. He rams the wad of paper down
hard. This action makes Laura flinch, because now it will be impossible
to remove the bin bag without ripping it, but she says nothing. She is, it
strikes her, lying low.
Henry reaches for his leather bag, which is bursting with printed
‘Oh, yes,’ he tells Jack, suddenly remembering. ‘I read your
composition. I loved it.’
‘No. I did. I loved it.’ He leans down for a kiss, Jack back reading
Tintin. ‘I’m off. Love you.’
Laura gets up. She moves slowly because she wants to move fast,
to draw Henry out into the hall, out of sight of the letter. She squeezes
between Carrie’s chair and the dresser, remembering as she does so
that last night Carrie had been in tears.
‘Better now, darling?’ she whispers as she passes.
‘Yes,’ says Carrie.
Laura knows her behaviour is undignified and unnecessary. Surely
the past has lost its power. Twenty years ago almost, we’re different
people, I had long hair then. So did he.
‘When will you be home?’
‘Christ knows. I’ll try to be on the 6.47.’
Rain streaking the flint wall. He kisses her in the open front
doorway, a light brush of the lips. As he does so he murmurs, ‘Love
you.’ This is habitual, but it has a purpose he once told her. Henry
suffers from bursts of irrational anxiety about her and the children,
that they’ll be killed in a car crash, burned in a fire. He tells them
he loves them every day as he leaves them because it may be the day
of their death.
Recalling this, watching his familiar tall disjointed frame even as
he steps out into the rain, Laura feels a quick stab of love.
‘I think that letter may be from Nick,’ she says.
‘Nick?’ His head turning back. Such a sweet funny face, droll as
Stan Laurel, and that fuzz of soft sandy hair. ‘Nick who?’
She sees the name register. A family legend, or possibly ghost.
‘Nick Crocker! Whatever happened to him?’
‘I’ve no idea. I haven’t opened the letter yet.’
‘Oh, well.’ Henry shakes open an umbrella. ‘Got to rush. Tell me
Nothing urgent in his curiosity. No intimation of danger. His footsteps
depart over the pea-beach gravel towards the Golf, parked in front
of the garage that is never used for cars. Laura goes back into the
kitchen and harries the children into readiness for the school run.
She’s glad she told Henry, but the fact remains that she left the telling
to the last minute. She had known it in the same moment that she
had recognized the handwriting. She would open the letter alone.
A dull roar in the drive heralds the arrival of Alison Critchell’s
Land Cruiser. This immense vehicle parts the falling rain like an ocean
liner. Laura stands under an umbrella by the driver window conferring
with Alison on the endless variables of the run. Jack and Carrie clamber
in the back.
‘Angus is staying late for cricket coaching. Phoebe may be having
a sleepover at the Johnsons. Assume it’s on unless I call.’ The litany
of names that bound Laura’s life. ‘Assume the world hasn’t ended
unless you see flaming chariots in the sky.’
‘What if they cancel the chariots?’
‘The bastards. They would, too.’
The wry solidarity of school-run mothers. Laura confirms all she
needs to know.
‘So it’s just my two at five.’
She waves as they drive off. Carrie is demanding about the waving.
Laura must wave as long as they remain in sight. The car is so wide
it creates a hissing wake through the spring verges, and the cow
parsley rolls like surf. The drenched morning air smells keen, expectant.
Who is it who loves the month of May? ‘I measure the rest of my
life by the number of Mays I will live to see.’ Henry, of course, ever
death-expectant. How could he have slipped so far from her mind?
Seated now at her work desk in what was once the dairy Laura Broad
addresses the day ahead. Deliberate and unhurried, she makes a list
of people she must call and things she must do. The letter lies unopened
before her. This is how as a child she ate Maltesers. One by one she
would nibble off the chocolate, leaving the whitish centres all in a
row. Then pop, pop, pop, in they would go one on top of the other,
in an orgy of delayed gratification. Even so it sometimes seemed to
her as she tracked the precise moment of pleasure unleashed that
there was a flicker of disappointment. Here I am, whispered the
perfect moment. I am now. I am no longer to come.
She studies her list. ‘Call Mummy about Glyndebourne.’ Does
being organized mean not being creative? ‘Laura possesses the ability
to achieve set tasks,’ a teacher wrote when she was thirteen years
old. Even then she had felt the implied criticism: a follower not a
leader. A natural aptitude for cataloguing. Henry said once, ‘You’d
make a good fanatic.’ He can be surprisingly perceptive. No, that’s
unfair. Henry is capable of great perception; only he isn’t always
looking. He never notices what I’m wearing.
‘Tell me when you’re wearing something special and I’ll comment
on it,’ he says.
‘But haven’t you got eyes? Can’t you see?’
Back then she had bought her clothes in charity shops. It’s easy
when you’re young.
She phones her mother.
‘This weather!’ her mother says. ‘I’m praying it’ll clear by Saturday.
Diana says it’s going to get worse.’
Saturday is the opening night of the Glyndebourne season. They’re
all going, Laura and Henry, her sister Diana and Roddy, courtesy of
their loving parents.
‘Don’t listen to Diana, Mummy. You know she hates it when people
This is true. Diana the ambitious one, Laura the pretty one. Some
quirk in the sibling dynamic dictated from an early age that Diana
takes life hard, and requires the world to reflect this. But she has her
good moments, she can be loyal and generous. Never so loving as
when Laura is miserable.
‘We can picnic on the terrace, I suppose. What will you wear?’
‘I don’t know,’ says Laura. ‘I haven’t thought.’
‘Diana’s bought something from a shop in St Christopher’s Place.
I forget where, but she sounds terrifically pleased with it.’
‘How’s Daddy’s back?’
‘Pretty hellish. I have to put his socks on for him in the morning.
Doctors can’t cure backs, you know. They just shrug their shoulders.’
What will I wear? Laura wonders as she puts down the phone. She
reviews her wardrobe in her mind’s eye. Her current favourite, a
green Ghost dress, is too light for a chilly May evening. As for her
beloved vintage Alaia, the truth is she no longer has the figure for it.
Not bad for forty-two and two children, but there was a time when
she could fit into anything.
Maybe I should zip up to London tomorrow.
This idea, suddenly planted, blossoms fiercely. There’s barely time
between school runs but it can be done. Glyndebourne opening night
is a grand affair, and it’s not often she gets a chance to dress up these
days. There was a time when she turned heads.
She takes up the waiting letter and looks again at the handwriting
that forms her name. A rapid careless scrawl in fine black fountain
pen, effortlessly stylish. Every stroke premeditated, therefore the
carelessness an illusion, an achieved effect. But she hadn’t known that
She opens the envelope. Headed letter paper, an unfamiliar address
in London. No salutation. No Dear Laura, Dearest Laura, Darling
Laura, nothing. As always.Well, seems like I’m back in the old country for a few weeks. Drunk
on England in spring. Walked yesterday in a bluebell wood so perfect
it tempts my heathen soul to seek a Creator. How are you? Who are
you? Shall we meet and compare notes on the vagaries of life’s journey?
No signature, not even an initial. She smiles, shakes her head, both
touched and irritated that he has changed so little. What right does
he have to assume she remembers? And yet of course she remembers.
She opens the bottom left-hand drawer of her desk, the place where
she keeps the family memorabilia. Birthday cards from the children,
paintings they did in class long ago, letters from Henry. She fumbles
all the way to the bottom, and there finds a sealed envelope she should
have thrown away years ago, but has not. She takes it out and places
it on the desk before her.
The envelope is addressed: ‘For N.C., one day.’
She remembers writing it, but not the words she wrote. Ridiculous
to have kept it for so long.
The flap of the envelope yields easily without tearing the paper.
Inside is a thin red ribbon, a strip of four photo-booth pictures, a
short note in Nick’s handwriting, and her letter.
She gazes at the pictures. In the top one he’s smiling at the camera,
at her. In the bottom one he has his eyes closed.
She starts to read the letter. As she reads, tears come to her eyes.Dear Nick. I’m writing this not long after you asked me to leave you.
I’ll give it to you when you ask me to come back.
The phone rings. Hurriedly, as if caught in a shameful act, she puts
the envelope and its contents back in the desk drawer.
‘So is it going to rain or isn’t it?’ Diana’s phone conversations
always begin in the middle. ‘God, don’t you hate England?’
She saw him coming down the carriage, swaying with the movement
of the train, his eyes scanning left and right for an empty seat. She
slid her canvas tote-bag over the table towards her, so creating a space
that the stranger would feel permitted to occupy: an unthinking act
of invitation which he accepted. His long body folded into the seat
facing her. In the moment of glancing eye contact he smiled, making
fine wrinkles round his eyes. He took out a book and opened it where
a postcard marked his place. The book was a dark-bound library
edition, and though she tried, she couldn’t discover its title. The
postcard, which lay on the table before her, was a painting of classical
figures round a tomb. So he was a student like her.
She gazed out of the train window at the passing scene. The train
entered a cutting. His reflection formed before her eyes, and she was
free to look without restraint. He was handsome, his strong features
framed and softened by a tangle of chestnut curls. He wore a denim
jacket over a check long-sleeved shirt, the cuffs unbuttoned. Round
his neck on a leather thong was a single mottled ceramic bead. He
read intently, moving only to turn the page. She studied his hand in
reflection, admiring the long fine fingers, noting the bitten nails.
He did not look at her. He seemed to be unaware of her. His
indifference on this, their first encounter, won her respect.
She asked Katie O’Keefe later, ‘Do you think that a man who wears
a bead round his neck is gay?’
Katie screwed up her face to consider.
‘Quite a big one. Kind of tortoiseshell.’
‘Bent as a poker,’ said Hal Ashburnham.
‘Pokers aren’t bent.’
‘It’s all about where you put it, isn’t it? In here
it’s straight. In here
The following evening she went to a party given by Richard Clements
in his college rooms. She had an essay to finish and worked long into
the evening, so by the time she arrived the party was noisy and
crowded. Felix Marks cornered her almost at once. He spoke to her
intently but inaudibly while her eyes searched the room.
Richard had told Laura that Felix was in love with her, though how
this could be, or even what it meant, Laura didn’t know. Love that
is offered but not returned is just words, surely, a nothingness, a
whistle in the dark.
Why have I never been in love?
Nineteen years old and no shortage of offers. She caught sight of
herself reflected in the uncurtained window panes, a shine of darkblonde
hair, a pale face, serious eyes. Why do I let Felix whisper
secrets to me? Because I want to be liked. Liked but not loved. Admire
me but don’t touch me. No, not that. Touch me, love me, but only
you, whoever you are, and only when I’m ready, whenever that may
Richard found her and rescued her.
‘Someone you have to meet,’ he said.
He had his back to her but she recognized him at once. He turned
at Richard’s touch and looked at Laura and smiled.
‘We’ve met already.’
‘You’ve met already?’ Richard was hurt. ‘No one told me.’
‘Not exactly met,’ said Laura.
So he had noticed her after all. He was smoking a Gitane, its acrid
smell reaching her like a low growl. There was music playing behind
the clatter of voices. Jackson Browne.Honey you really tempt me
You know the way you look so kind
I’d love to stick around but I’m running behind . . .
‘Laura Kinross. This is Nick Crocker.’
Excerpted from The Secret Intensity of Everday Life by William Nicholson. Copyright © 2011 by William Nicholson. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, 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.