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A Winter Marriage: A Novel


SHE MET HIM AT A WEDDING she had gone to only because she needed a husband and a wedding wasn't a bad place to begin looking.

She didn't try to hide much from him, which was sound judgment because he didn't know much about women and he couldn't have talked to a woman who wasn't straight with him. But more than judgment, Hannie had luck. She met Ned when he was looking anyway, so most of the work was done for her. And he took to her, he liked her crooked straightness from the start.

She came from nowhere, had no family, no country and no background. None of that would have mattered only she had no money either so she needed somewhere to live, something to live on. She was fifty-two, she made no secret of it, nor of the fact that her need for a husband was overwhelmingly financial.

That didn't put Ned off. Nor did the fourteen-year-old son she'd left in Africa while she came prospecting for their futures. Ned didn't know what he wanted when he met her, he'd only just admitted to himself that he wanted anything at all, so her directness eased things for him. He didn't know it, but he couldn't have coped with a woman of delicacy who left him to do the running, and he couldn't have coped with a woman who wasn't an outsider.

So the way of it was she decided Ned might do and she got around Tom and Beth so they helped her, and Ned went along with it not because he was trapped by her as his friends thought, but because she was what he wanted all along.

SOCIAL SITUATIONS were what she needed, and introductions to the right sort of men: men who didn't know her history or reputation, who might be charmed and cajoled into taking her on. By luck a widow this time not a divorc?e, she still had a few respectable connections to exploit, so when she decided on taking this trip to England she phoned the Grenvilles from Kenya and asked Beth for a bed.

"For the wedding," she said. "Maybe a day or two after, I'm not sure of my movements. So much to be taken care of—Andrew's English estate—London—Andrew's solicitors. . ." She left it vague.

Strictly speaking, she hadn't asked, she'd just said her piece and then waited, knowing that Beth wouldn't be able to let the silence run on. Beth was soft, everyone knew that, most of all Hannie, who was anything but soft. There were other people she could have asked, but she didn't. If you were going to use someone, best choose someone trustworthy who assumed that you were the same until they were reminded that you weren't. It wasn't long before Beth was reminded, but by then it was too late.

The wedding invitation was more luck. The bride had been Andrew's goddaughter, the embossed invitation had come in the post a bare six weeks before he died.Andrew had answered at once: congratulations to his little Sophie (not so little anymore, it seemed); he and Hannie would most certainly be there to see her married. Between this acceptance and his death a few weeks later he had issued his ultimatum and Hannie had left.

But Sophie didn't know this and neither did Sophie's parents, who wrote their commiserations when the death notice appeared in the London Times. The letter was addressed to Andrew's widow, Hannie Bennet.

Hannie wrote back that she would be in England on business matters and she very much looked forward to this meeting with Andrew's old friends and his goddaughter at her wedding.Andrew had spoken of them so often, she felt it only right to be there as his representative.

She sealed the letter, trusting they wouldn't yet have heard the gossip. Even if they had, they'd hardly write and tell her so. Or make a scene when she turned up at the church.

SHE WAS STILL AN ATTRACTIVE WOMAN, Beth thought,watching Hannie sitting at a table on the lawn.There was the usual wedding marquee but the day was fine and dry, the tables had all been moved outside.

Very attractive, whatever Tom might say.Tom liked more grooming: nice hair, a little makeup, something finished in the look.Yet he woke up when Hannie was around, he pretended he didn't, but he did.

Any fool could see she was trouble,Tom used to say; there were always nods and murmurs of agreement from his listeners. Beth thought men saw the trouble and they liked it, even Tom.They liked the aloofness, the lack of involvement, the way she walked by herself.

Hannie had kicked off her shoes under the table, her hair was sunbleached and she wore a not-new dress in faded gray. Beth pulled the floral frock she'd thought she liked so much down over her stomach. She wished she'd tried for elegance not prettiness. She wished she didn't care that her waist had broadened and her stomach bulged. She wished that, like Hannie, she didn't try to hide it.

Funny how it looked all right if you didn't care. Except it probably wouldn't on her. She resolved to eat less, walk more. She knew she wouldn't. She resolved to stop worrying so much about what she looked like, to "accept" herself (that curious language that her children spoke). Hannie had just done that thing she did when she stopped being interested by whoever it was she had been being interested by. Switched off the light and gone out. Beth had almost forgotten that trick, the way she could not-be-there, like an abandoned puppet, a rag doll left out in the rain. Men always fell for it, they suddenly got frantic that she wasn't listening anymore, wasn't interested when she had been, so intensely. Funny how easy it was for some people.

IT DIDN'T FEEL easy to Hannie. It was all smooth and smart and understated, all grooming and opinions. She had to wrench herself up to the mark, make herself perform, not give up and go under. She felt blunt and shabby and old. And tired, really tired.

She met Ned through a young woman called Jessica who'd sought her out and introduced herself.

"My mother knew your husband. She said you might be here. I'm to offer you her sympathies."

Hannie hovered for a moment on the edge of paranoia. She dismissed it. This Jessica would neither know nor care about the marital gossip of another generation on another continent.

"She knew the family. Years ago in Oxfordshire. She had a thing about the oldest brother." "Edward," Hannie said. "Edward," Jessica agreed."You must tell me how he is. She'll want to know in detail—"

"He's dead. Died before I ever met him." "Really?" Jessica sounded quite interested. "My father will be relieved.

Edward was her untraveled road. She does rather tend to let herself regret him out loud when she's cross."

Jessica was tall and slender with gray eyes and perfect skin and perfect self-possession. A woman, not a girl, nearer thirty-five than twenty, her voice was clear and well bred and she wore a loose green linen dress, which showed off her wavy, fair hair. She was like daylight, Hannie thought, not liking her.

She had a man with her, following a few paces after like a dragged anchor, so that he didn't seem to be with her though he was. He caught up with her and stood almost beside her and she introduced him. Ned Renvyle.

Hannie shook hands. He was very tall and bony, with a full head of fine gray hair. The hair was much younger than the face, which was tanned and folded into long broken creases like the wandering courses of wadis in the dry season. The eyes were withdrawn and almost invisible between deep lines and puckers.

Jessica had finished with Hannie, she had inquired about her mother's old flame and was ready to move on, but a sudden eddy of people pressed into them and the space for retreat closed. Resignedly the two women began again. Ned Renvyle stood and listened.

Jessica worked in broadcasting, a producer not a secretary, Hannie's assumptions smoothly corrected. She spoke briefly of a series she was executive-producing, throwing in a couple of observations that were meaningless to Hannie but made Ned Renvyle nod appreciatively. It was all gracefully done: self-aware, modest, informative. Hannie glanced at the hands. Jessica wore no rings.

"What do you do?" she asked Hannie. Her tone was pleasant, conversational.

Your turn, it said, I've done my bit. What you don't do, Hannie thought. Live off men. When I get the chance.

"Marry," she said starkly.

Jessica looked startled. Hannie was startled herself, she probably hadn't intended to say it aloud, she wasn't entirely sure. The bony old man twitched slightly, the wine jumped in his glass. He had been watching Hannie closely while seeming not to. Jessica laughed. She lifted her glass as though to drink to Hannie but it was empty. Ned Renvyle automatically held out his hand for it.

"Perrier water," Jessica said. He held out his hand for Hannie's glass. "Red," she said. He turned and bored his way through the crowd. "So you're currently out of a job?" Jessica asked lightly. Hannie nodded. "I am looking for a new position." "Oh?" Jessica said. "That must be tedious.Wouldn't you rather a break?"

"Economic necessity," Hannie said. Jessica looked at her curiously. It seemed to occur to her that Hannie was serious. Her interest was almost caught—it was the tastelessness of Hannie's remarks. She seemed about to speak but a tall, impeccably dressed man with a thatch of straight brown hair was shoving his way furiously through the crowd.

"That was Ned Renvyle," he accused as soon as he reached her. "I saw you talking to him, couldn't get near you. . . Honestly, Jessica, why didn't you hold on to him? You knew perfectly well I wanted to meet him."

This was not a boyfriend, Hannie realized, nor a lover awaiting divorce. This was a consort or a partner or whatever these things were called now; a husband she hadn't yet bothered to marry. Jessica introduced Hannie, but the man hardly glanced at her. "He didn't want to meet anyone," Jessica continued calmly. "He wanted to hang on to someone so he didn't have to. I can't think what he's doing here. He's terribly shy—"

"Shy? You're talking about a man who marches up to headhunters and invites himself round for a year or two. He's not shy, Jessica, explorers aren't shy, for a halfway intelligent woman you do talk a load of crap."

"Shy in this sort of company. Stop making such a fuss and go and find him yourself. He's gone to get us drinks, but he's probably forgotten by now. Mine's Perrier water, Hannie's is red wine." She spoke like a mother ignoring a child's petulance.

He glared at her and headed off after Renvyle. Then he stopped, turned on his heel and came back. He addressed Hannie. "Sorry," he said. "Very rude of me. Bit of an obsession." He wheeled and stomped off again, ignoring Jessica. "It's true," Jessica said. "The obsession bit. He read the books when he was a boy and just completely fell for them."

"What sort of books?" "Travel. The Gentleman Adventurer. More Thesiger than Fleming, but slightly later and not so well connected. Quite obviously incredibly brave, only never ever written like that.Touching, really." She paused, her eyes on a woman who seemed anxious to shepherd them toward the lunch tables.

"Of course, they're hopelessly out-of-fashion and out-of-print and cluttering-up-the-secondhand-bookshelves. I shouldn't think Ned Renvyle's royalty checks are exactly keeping the mice from his door." "Where is his door?"

"Oh, Ireland somewhere." Jessica spoke in a neutral voice. "Old family. You know the sort of thing. Nettles and decay."

HANNIE DIDN'T, and it didn't sound very promising. Still, she wasn't exactly being bombarded with opportunities; she might follow it up for want of anything better.

She scanned the tables, found her name on a bit of card and picked up the one from the place setting next to it.Three tables up, she found Ned Renvyle's name card. People were beginning to take their seats but she ignored them, leaned over and changed his card for the one in her hand. She went back to her table, sat down, and put Ned's card on the setting beside her.

JESSICA WAS RIGHT, Ned Renvyle lived in Ireland. Hannie had listened for an estate but heard only a house, a farm. A family farm?

No, not a family farm but the next best thing.A farm near the places and people he'd known in his childhood. He'd bought it when he left off roaming around the place and came home.

Home? He was an Irishman? His family had lived there for generations, he said, not answering her question. But he wasn't a farmer?

He was now. Before that, he told her, he'd mostly traveled, written the odd book, given lectures, that sort of thing. There'd been some rooms in London where he'd lived when he wasn't away. Now he farmed a few acres. Nothing much, but it kept him occupied. He lived alone. Been married once, his wife had died. He was over for this wedding. And to see his publisher, visit friends.

THEY WERE SNARLED in a long line of traffic with no visible reason for the holdup. Hannie sat in the back of the car, staring absently out of the window while Tom and Beth bickered about Beth's choice of route. Ireland. She hadn't thought of Ireland, had never been there. It might be the answer. He was on the lookout, she knew that, just from the things he'd said this afternoon.And he'd taken to her, she knew that too.

She'd have to find things out, she decided: how much land, if there was money to go with it, if there were any commitments. You couldn't rely on family anymore,Andrew had said. Or schools. A chap could sound right and have nothing.These days, there was more likely to be money if he sounded wrong.

Ned Renvyle would definitely have sounded right in Andrew's book. Hannie didn't care what a chap sounded like as long as he wasn't flat broke.

She could probably hook him if she played him right, she thought, and he might be the start she needed. She could always leave him if she couldn't stand him, but he must be pushing seventy, he couldn't live forever, she might just stick it out until he died.With a bit of luck he'd leave her somewhere to live or enough to live on.With a lot of luck he'd leave her both.

If he turned out to have anything at all. But she'd have to let him do the next bit. She wondered how fast he would move if he made up his mind to it. She wondered how fast she could move in her turn. If he did as he'd told her he planned to do and went up to London, she'd have to follow him, invite herself on someone. She couldn't afford a hotel, couldn't put all her eggs in one basket at this stage when nothing might come of it.

But he might not go to London, he might stay on. And if he did, she'd stay on too. She'd tell Beth the truth, or a version of it, ask for her help. Beth would understand. Not like that blond bitch at the wedding with her career and her salary and her future.

She would explain about the separation, which she hadn't so far mentioned. She would tell Beth there'd be no money coming, even after the will was settled, Andrew's children would inherit; she was broke and needed to marry again.

They'd hear it all anyway, and there was no predicting when. Africa gossip, it might take a while, but it would permeate through in the end. Tell Beth, but ask her not to pass it on to Tom. She would of course. So if they heard before she was ready, she'd be covered.

But she wouldn't tell her about Joss or the reasons for the separation. The traffic began to move.Tom stopped telling Beth she'd chosen the wrong route and started complaining about the cold supper she was planning. All that fidgety food they pushed at you at weddings. You needed a decent dinner to settle you down, he said. He was quite drunk. For once Beth stood her ground and stuck to her cold meats and salad. She was tired, they'd eaten a massive lunch, and the help had the evening off. It wasn't like Africa, she said over her shoulder at Hannie. Africa, where everyone had servants.There was nostalgia in her voice. Hannie said nothing. Where everyone like you had servants, she thought, remembering days when she hadn't had enough to feed herself and Joss, much less a servant.

Ned Renvyle. Only if she was desperate. Maybe not even then. The next move was his, anyway.

"OH, THE WOODBURNS," Beth said. "Minster Lovell, beautiful house, Jacobean, been in the family for generations. Jessica's the youngest. Nice, isn't she?"

Hannie said nothing. "And terribly successful." More silence from Hannie. Beth began to waver. "It must be wonderful," she said, "to be like her." Hannie looked at her.

"Oh, you know. . ." Beth flapped her hand around vaguely. "Not having to wait for the right moment. A job. Confidence. Beautiful clothes. . ."

"Career." Hannie corrected her. "Career?"

"She has a career, not a job. She told me so." The two women sat outside in the sunshine, helping the help. And Hannie was working on Beth, she was reestablishing herself and gathering information.

"I never liked stringing beans," Beth said. "I always slice my fingers as well as the beans. Shelling peas is different, I like shelling peas. The little bump-bump-bump noise in the bowl. Mummy made us volunteer but we never minded." She picked up the next runner bean from the pile on the table and looked at it balefully. "I bet Jessica Woodburn never strings beans."

"Are there many like her?" Hannie asked. Her voice was neutral. Beth sighed and leaned back in her deck chair. "It's the way things are now," she said carefully."Women like us. . ." Hannie waited.

"Anyway, I like my life," Beth continued, "I don't really want to be like that. Except sometimes. Sometimes it's hard-feeling you haven't done anything.You have to do something, you know. Not just marry and have children and run a house. Sara says I'm a bad role model. That means an example for her to base herself on. She says it won't be her fault if she turns out just like me." Hannie laughed. Then she remembered herself. "What does Tom say?" she asked tactfully.

Beth cheered up. She sat forward, waving a runner bean around as she talked. "Tom? He just wants things to go on as they've always done. His home the way he likes it, food the way he likes it, me here to look after him. To 'service him,' as Sara says. Even the boys talk like that since they went to Cambridge. And they're right, of course they're right, and I wish I was different, I'd so like them to be proud of me, especially Sara."

"These Jessica Woodburns," Hannie said, "do they have children?" "Oh, yes. One or two. Late. It's all wonderful.Then they get a nanny and go back to work. Just like our mothers, my dear, only they went back to their social lives.Which is what work is to them anyway, as far as I can see. Still, it gives the lie to the men laying down the law about the sacrifice they make for us, slaving away in the office all their lives.

These women simply can't wait to get back there." Beth stopped suddenly. Hannie was looking across the lawn, that still, empty expression on her face. Beth heard herself and blushed to her hairline. So stupid, she'd forgotten for a moment about Hannie. She was always so poised, her English almost flawless, she had been so very much at home in Andrew's world where they had met her. And it might not have been true, it could have been just spiteful gossip. She tried desperately to think of something to say but nothing came. Hannie rescued her. "What do the men think?" she asked lightly.

"I don't know. They don't seem to have much choice. They're not really allowed to say anything, whatever they may think.Which is about time, really," she finished, brightening. "But we're not allowed to say anything either. Not even discuss.We've wasted our lives and we're jealous.

But I'm not jealous, really I'm not, and I don't mind if that's what they want to do, I just don't want to have to start doing it myself...." Sara appeared in the doorway behind them.

"There was a man on the phone for Hannie. I said I'd get her but he got in a panic, said he'd ring back in an hour."

Beth swiveled around in the deck chair. She addressed her daughter.

"What was his name, darling?" "I don't know, Ren-something," the fifteen-year-old replied. "First he wanted her and then he didn't. Couldn't make up his mind." Hannie couldn't, either.

A Winter Marriage: A Novel
by by Kerry Hardie

  • paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316608475
  • ISBN-13: 9780316608473