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The Shell House
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The Shell House

Written by Linda NewberyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Linda Newbery

· Laurel Leaf
· eBook · December 18, 2007 · $4.99 · 978-0-307-43400-5 (0-307-43400-1)

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He couldn't face going back indoors.

If he walked in, their faces would look up at him, polite, expectant; they would be ready to make allowances. The meal would be finished: his plate and his scattered cutlery would have been removed from the table, his toppled chair replaced. His mother would have said something to smooth over his rudeness, and the others would make sympathetic noises, some of them genuine.

No-one understood. They would be having coffee now, passing the cream, passing the sugar, in the large room with the windows closed against the spring evening, as if nothing had changed.

Everything had changed.

At the top of the steps to the garden, he filled his lungs with cool air. It was dusk. Light from the windows fell on the terrace, and a fountain played below. Its soft, regular trickle ought to have been soofi-dng, but nothing could soothe him; he had to get away, down the steps, out of sight of the house. Mown lawn welcomed his feet, yielding silently to his

I tread. The cool toughness of cypress leaves brushed his face as he pushed through a row of conifers; the air smelled of grass and damp earth. He closed his eyes as memory surged through him like the delayed aftershock of pain. He felt detached from his body: from his walking feet, his breathing lungs, his mind registering smells and sounds.

In the lower garden, he paused for a moment to listen, looking in the direction of London, thinking of Kent beyond, and the coast. People said that you could sometimes hear the guns, even at this distance. Nothing. He felt oddly disappointed, hearing only the whirr of moth wings, seeing the flicker of a bat; an owl hooted down in the woods. Nothing else disturbed the silence.

He lowered his head and walked on, down a flight of steps towards the glimmer of water, along a mossy path to the grotto.

Chain gang

Greg's photograph: a huge eighteenth-century mansion standing alone. It is built in classical style: weighty, monumental, symmetrical. The frontage is of Portland stone; twinflights of steps rise to the pillared main entrance. The central section is surmounted by a decorative triangular panel sculpted with recliningfigures and a Latin inscription. At a glance, you'd think you were looking at a stately home - a National Trust property, perhaps. Only when you look properly do you see that the door and windows are blank, that there is no roof, and that the house is an empty shell.

'You can't do it,' said Faith. 'You can't make a bargain with God.'

Greg would always remember her saying that, in the grotto, where cold sunlight on the lake rippled patterns of light on the curve of the wall. She sat shrugged into her fleece jacket, her hands tucked up inside the sleeves; her eyes were dark and intense. She

was a girl in a shell, cupped and held like a pearl in an oyster. He saw her as part of an accidentally beautiful composition: dark hair and eyes, scarlet fleece, tile fragments in a swirling pattern behind her. Frame, click! went his mental camera. These were the photographs that stayed in his mind: the ones he hadn't taken.

The first time they met, at the end of summer, he saw her as bossy, imperious. She manipulated him.

He was trespassing. The burnt-out mansion was visible from the main road: sometimes a silhouette on its ridge, sometimes golden in sunlight. Out on his bike with hours of Sunday freedom ahead, he had let curiosity reel him in. He cycled past the sign that said GRAVENEY HALL - PRIVATE on the lodge gates, and on down the long driveway to the ruined mansion, with its commanding position over acres of wheatfields and woods. If it hadn't been for the cars parked along the front drive, he would have poked about, inside and out, taking photographs, ignoring the DANGER signs. He hadn't expected anyone to be here, and was annoyed.

The day was still and humid; sweat trickled between his shoulder-blades and down his back. He leaned his bike against the fence and stood gazing up at the vast shell. Must have been some fire, he thought, to destroy a place this size. It was roofless, open to the sky. All the doors and windows were huge, as if the house had been inhabited by giants.

Most of the outer walls were intact, but through a door beneath the steps he glimpsed piles of collapsed brick, and nettles and even slender trees growing out of the debris. Although the house must be past repair, he saw people working inside, a team of them: shovelling, hacking at the layer of sediment that coated the ground, carting stones in wheelbarrows. A woman with a tray of mugs was picking her way across the rough floor. He hung back, expecting to be challenged, but they were all absorbed in their tasks.

Retreating, he found a way through the makeshift fence that ran along the farthest side of the house, making the place look like a building site. The house was almost as deep as it was wide; there were remains of brick walls here, perhaps from extensions or a conservatory. Making his way round to the back, he emerged into an expanse of derelict garden. He saw a pair of stone surnmerhouses, and a balustrade dividing the garden into two levels. From the driveway, you wouldn't know this was here at all. He took two photographs, imagining how the garden must have looked a hundred and fifty, two hundred years ago. There must have been statues, fountains, the lot, and a whole team of gardeners. The outlines were still visible: the bases of statues, and a raised walk of rough grass down the whole length, with sunken areas either side. And this was only the formal part. He guessed that there would have been more: a kitchen garden for the house, orchards, wooded areas down in the valley.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from The Shell House by Linda Newbery Copyright © 2002 by Linda Newbery. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, 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.