on October 4 2018
In the summer of 1972, a group of friends is invited to Somerset to help photographer Seymour Stratton renovate a dilapidated cottage on Wyld Farm. Over the next year the group come to regard the farm as offering them a place to be for the rest of their lives, to enjoy 'the good life'. But despite the commitment and camaraderie the rural idyll collapses.
Twenty-five years later, the group is brought together again in unexpected circumstances. Can events of the past be forgotten? Or will the secrets that are revealed devastate once unbreakable friendships?
All her life, Amy Taylor has been a dutiful daughter. She still wakes early, anxious there is an essay to finish or a deadline looming or an exam she has missed. Then the smell of furniture spray and the drone of the hoover remind her that her school days are over. Jubilant, she springs from her bed. She will take the next step, even if she does not know where it will lead.
‘Julian lives there with his father,’ she told them.
The lie slipped out easily. As she watched her father digest the information, it occurred to her that if she had been economical with the truth more often, things would have been easier. He closes the doors of the cabinet behind which sits the television. He flicks on the electric fire and settles in the comfy chair that he always chooses. The BBC news has just finished (he does not approve of ITV). They will now discuss Amy’s proposed holiday.
Her boyfriend, David Bond, sits on the sofa next to her mother, the foam cushions dipping so that he must concentrate on stopping his body from rolling into the woman he is trying to impress. Amy’s father pours the tea and they are, for a moment, mesmerised by the brown liquid that streams from the spout, grateful for the delay in starting what will be a difficult conversation.
‘Sugar, David?’ says Shirley. Her pearl necklace matches the pearly shine of her nails, both worn for the occasion.
Her boyfriend’s insouciance is only partially tamed by the ironed shirt and tie. It makes David look at the same time both younger and older. This, the first man Amy has ever lain alongside in a bed, skin to skin, gripping him with shy fingers and hot thighs, feeling the choking desire she had read about in books. It shocks her that now he seems almost a stranger. But they had agreed when he came for tea he must look as respectable as possible, not wear his loon pants and tie-dyed t-shirt. When her parents ask about the arrangements for sleeping – which they will – they must be able to believe what David says. Being dressed smartly will help. Her parents must feel assured that what they cared about more than anything, their daughter’s virginity, will be protected.
The proposal is that Amy accompany David to spend a month on a friend’s farm in Somerset.
‘My friend Julian Stratton has asked me and another friend from university, Simon Webster, to stay with him this summer. We’re going to help rebuild a cottage
‘It’s meant to be lovely countryside around there,’ says Amy, passing the plate of biscuits to their guest. ‘I’m sure we’ll get a chance to visit Exmoor.’
Amy does not know if it is beautiful in Somerset. But her father, who spends his evenings in the small square garden behind the house tending the vegetables that the family eat at every meal, will be pleased to think she has an interest in nature.
‘But what help will you be?’ John finds it hard to accept his shy daughter had become this confident young woman. He remembers the trembling toddler, the cautious schoolgirl.
‘I’m strong, Dad, I can work,’ Amy protests.
‘I haven’t noticed you doing much in my garden,’ her father replies curtly. He is more annoyed than he should be. He senses he is being manipulated but cannot see how.
‘The boys will be doing the heavy work, Mr Taylor,’ interjects David. ‘Cigarette?’ He stretches forward with a lighter. Neither man speaks while they inhale. ‘I don’t know if Amy has mentioned it. Julian’s father is a well-known photographer, Seymour Stratton. I suspect you know his work?’
Both parents nod vaguely; Amy knows they are lying.
David continues: ‘Fashion, the arts, royalty I think, sometimes. But Mr Stratton is taking time away from London to rebuild this cottage. He’ll be there with us. It’s a smallholding really; some grazing land, a few acres, some outbuildings. Amy will do some of the lighter work, painting perhaps. There’ll be paid labourers, too.’
Amy wonders how David knows this. Then she remembers a piece of information that will elicit sympathy. ‘Julian’s mother is not alive,’ she says.
‘Isn’t that terrible. Poor boy,’ Shirley says. After a pause, she adds: ‘So you can do the cooking, Amy. I’ve taught you a few dishes and I can lend you my Marguerite Patten recipe book.’
It was her mother’s habit, when uncertain, to thrum her fingers on her bony clavicle. Sometimes Amy wonders if one day when her mother is agitated whether her fingers might leap up and wrap themselves tightly around her throat to strangle her.
‘That’s what I was thinking, Mum. Look, you could always phone up Mr Stratton and talk to him if you’re worried? Dad, why don’t you do that?’
It is a gamble worth taking. Seymour Stratton is unlikely to be at the farmhouse to take the call. He is rarely there, according to Julian, preferring to remain in London where his friends and most of his work are. Often works abroad, Julian explained, photographing models in exotic destinations. It would probably be Julian who answered the phone or perhaps the housekeeper.
Shirley says hurriedly: ‘I don’t think we need to bother Mr Stratton, do you, John? It sounds like a lovely holiday for you both. A month in the country, isn’t there a book by that name? And then, of course, you start the secretarial course in September.
‘Yes Mother,’ Amy nods. ‘I can’t wait.