9781451673173

Alys, Always: A Novel

Lane, Harriet

ISBN 10: 1451673175 / 1-4516-7317-5
ISBN 13: 9781451673173
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: 2013
Binding: Softcover
About this title:
Synopsis:
On a bitter winter’s night, Frances Thorpe comes upon the aftermath of a car crash and, while comforting the dying driver, Alys Kyte, hears her final words. The wife of a celebrated novelist, Alys moved in rarefied circles, and when Frances agrees to meet the bereaved family, she glimpses a world entirely foreign to her: cultured, wealthy, and privileged. While slowly forging a friendship with Alys’s carelessly charismatic daughter, Frances finds her own life takes a dramatic turn, propelling her from an anonymous existence as an assistant editor for the books section of a newspaper to the dizzying heights of literary society.

Transfixing, insightful, and unsettling, Alys, Always drops us into the mind of an enigmatic young woman whose perspective on a glamorous world also shines a light on those on the outside who would risk all to become part of it.

About the Author:
Harriet Lane has worked as an editor and writer at Tatler and the Observer. She has also written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, and Vogue. She lives in London, England. Alys, Always is her first novel.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Alys, Always
The Highgate house is set back rather grandly from the street: gravel, gateposts, the humped suggestion of a shrubbery. A dingy pile of old snow is lying in the lee of the garden wall, evidently out of reach of the winter sun on the rare occasions when it might appear; otherwise little sign of it is left in the front garden, and the wide front steps have been scraped clear of ice. Apart from the glow of the stained-glass fanlight—smoky-purple grapes spilling forth from a golden horn—the house is dark. It’s five o’clock, teatime, but could just as well be midnight.

A security light clicks on as I walk up the steps and press the bell, but I hear nothing: no chime, no footfall. I was nervous enough about this meeting to start with, and now, before I’ve even gone inside, I’m feeling caught out, on the hop.

Perhaps I didn’t press the bell hard enough? Perhaps it’s broken?

I wait another few seconds, just to see whether anyone’s coming, then press it again, firmly this time, though with a similar result. A moment passes, then I hear the sound of light footsteps, followed by the snap of the lock. A trim-looking, young woman in a zippered fleece and knee-length corduroy skirt opens the door.

“Frances,” she says, clasping my hand and looking me squarely in the face, an onslaught of sincerity. “I’m Kate Wiggins. The family’s downstairs.”

In the hall, I take off my scarf and jacket. There’s a worn scarlet rug underfoot, Turkish, by the look of it. A tall pot of umbrellas and cricket bats. A rack of Wellingtons and shoes and hiking boots. A wall of coats, slumped there like so many turned backs.

The air is full of scent: flowers, the creamy sweetness of their fragrance. A bowl of hyacinths is on the hall table, next to the spill of unopened post, and as we walk down the corridor, I look off into the shadowy reception rooms on either side and see containers filled with roses, lilies, irises, freesias, mostly white and still bound in luxurious cellophane ruffs and curls of ribbon.

The staircase at the end of the hall curves down into the open-plan kitchen: a judicious combination of heritage (flagstones, butler’s sink, Aga, a dresser stacked with Cornishware) and contemporary (forensic lighting, a stainless-steel fridge the size of a Victorian wardrobe). More flowers are crammed into jars and jugs along the bookshelves and the windowsills and the oak refectory table, around which three people are sitting. A fourth figure, a girl, stands at the French windows, a cat angling around her ankles. As I descend, the girl glances away from the back garden, the golden rectangles of light falling on the preserved fragments of snow, and fastens her pale eyes on me. It’s a desperate sort of scrutiny. It makes me feel even more self-conscious. Carefully, I look down and watch my feet moving over the last few stairs.

“Laurence Kyte,” he says, rising from the table and coming towards me. “Thanks for agreeing to see us. Can I call you Frances?”

I take his hand. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I say.

He swallows. The cheap remark is fresh, still a shock, for him. Seeing his vulnerability, I feel a strange tremor of excitement. This man I know from the half-page reviews and the diary pages and the guest slots on Newsnight, with his authority and remorseless judgments, is standing here before me, shouldering his grief, bowed down by it. I have something he wants, I think, with a prickle of possibility. I wonder if I can give it to him. “Thank you,” he says. “These are my children, Edward and Polly.”

Edward is midtwenties, tall, fair, slight-looking, and his greeting is noncommittal, courteous but impersonal. Polly, a few years younger, comes away from the French windows towards me, and as we shake hands, she twists her mouth to stop herself from crying. Her narrow, white face is blotchy with old tears.

She looks like a little mouse, I think. I squeeze her hand. “I’m Frances,” I say.

“And this is Charlotte Black,” Laurence Kyte says, indicating the third person at the table, a woman in her fifties. Plain, dark clothes, the sort that cost serious money, a heavy silver cuff on her wrist. “A friend of the family.”

Of course I know of Charlotte Black, Kyte’s agent. She has quite a reputation.

Kate Wiggins has been standing back, letting us get on with it. Now, in her supportive administrative role, she offers me a cup of tea or coffee. I feel too nervous to have a preference. “Water’s fine,” I say.

“Well, I’m having a glass of wine,” says Laurence. “I think we can probably all agree this situation calls for a drink.”

He locates a particular bottle of red in the rack under the counter and brings the glasses to the table. While he’s doing this, his children are taking their seats at it, side by side, not looking at each other. They are dreading this, I think. They want to know, but they’re scared of what I might tell them.

Charlotte, at the end of the table, smiles reassuringly at me. “Kate was saying you don’t live far away?”

“Down the hill,” I say. “No, not far at all.” Of course, my part of north London, maybe a mile off, is quite a contrast to this one, as it’s dominated by arterial roads, betting shops, and the empty midrise office blocks which no tenants can be persuaded to occupy. The Kytes live in a very different London. Their neighbourhood is a sequence of broad, moneyed avenues running between green spaces—various woods and parks, the Heath—and what the locals call “the village,” a high street full of coffee shops, estate agents, and boutiques selling organic face creams and French children’s wear.

Laurence uncorks the bottle and starts to pour. Kate Wiggins shakes her head when he looks at her, but everyone else accepts a glass. Finally, we’re all sitting at the table, ready. I hold the glass in my hand. It’s a solid, simple goblet. Danish, I expect. When I taste the wine, I try to concentrate on it, but I’m really a bit too on edge, waiting to see how the Kytes want to play this.

Let them set the pace, Wiggins had suggested. They’ll let you know what they need to know. And if you can’t answer their questions, just say so. I put my glass down and fold my hands in my lap. The table vibrates slightly: Edward, jiggling his foot, betraying his nerves. To my surprise, he speaks first.

“We wanted to meet you to tell you how grateful we are,” he begins, as if he’s finally delivering a speech which he has privately rehearsed many times. “We’ve been taken through your statement, and it has been a real comfort to know that Mum wasn’t on her own at the end. That she had someone to talk to . . . someone who could talk to her.”

Polly looks up, her eyes blurring, and asks in a burst, “Can you tell us what she said? We know what you told the police, but . . . did she sound like herself?”

Kate Wiggins says, “Polly, I’m not sure whether Frances can—” and then I interrupt her, with a firmness I don’t feel, and I say, “We talked. She was quite . . . together. She wasn’t in distress, or at least if she was, she controlled it. You know I couldn’t see her?”

For some reason, I want them all to be reminded of this. Polly nods, her pale eyes fixed on me.

I glance around the table. Everyone seems to be waiting for something—for me to continue, I realise. I have everyone’s absolute attention. It’s an alarming feeling, but not altogether disagreeable.

“It was very dark,” I say, my voice sounding small in that huge white space. “And because of that and the position of the car, I couldn’t see how injured she was. I didn’t know. She told me she might have hurt her legs, but otherwise she seemed okay. She didn’t seem to be in pain. She said she’d come off the road avoiding a fox. She talked about living nearby, she mentioned the car had recently been cleaned.”

At the edge of my vision, I see Laurence suddenly drop his head, staring down at his hands, processing this reminder of a previous life.

“Yes,” I say, as if it’s all coming back to me, “She cracked a sort of joke about how her husband—you—had just had the car cleaned.”

Polly makes a noise at this point: part laugh, part sob. Her cuff winking in the light, Charlotte Black pushes the box of tissues across the table and reaches out to catch hold of Polly’s fingers.

“She thanked me for keeping her company. I remember thinking what a dignified sort of person she seemed.” As a matter of fact, this thought had crossed my mind only subsequently, reading over my statement with O’Driscoll, but it’s the sort of thing I imagine they’d like to hear—need to hear, really.

Polly’s really crying now, into a handful of Kleenex. Edward is very still. I leave a little pause, just a tiny beat, and then, because it’s irresistible, I say, “And of course, when I told her I could see the ambulance coming, she said, ‘Tell them I love them.’ ”

As I speak, I feel Wiggins shifting slightly beside me. This wasn’t in the statement.

“Just that,” I say. “ ‘Tell them I love them.’ It was the last thing she said to me.”

I look up, into Laurence’s face, the eye of the storm, and I see him exhale, and as that breath leaves him, his energy seems to leach away with it. He looks more like an old man now, weak and tired, hollow with exhaustion. When he lifts his glass to his lips, his hand is trembling. Charlotte Black presses knuckles to her eyes. I get the feeling she’s startled and embarrassed by her reaction. Edward is staring at the table. The only sound is Polly weeping.

“There’s really nothing else I can tell you,” I say. “I’m sorry, it doesn’t seem very much.”

“Well,” says Laurence finally, “I have no questions. You’ve been very kind, Frances. Very sensitive. Thank you for that, as well as . . .” His voice trails off. Then he looks around, remembering himself, consulting his children, clearing his throat. “Does anyone else want to ask anything?”

The room stays quiet.

“I really wish I could have done more,” I say. Then I have another sip of wine. It’s an intensely dark red which briefly stains the glass when you tilt it. Were I more knowledgeable, perhaps it would taste like the wines I read about in novels and restaurant reviews, which always seem to taste of plums and cherries and cinnamon. I’d quite like to finish it, but this might seem inappropriate, greedy, so I push the glass away with a tiny sigh. Kate Wiggins gives me a discreet nod and starts to ease her chair back from the table. I am being dismissed.

“I should be on my way,” I say. “But if you have any more questions, if I can do anything . . .”

“Won’t you finish your glass? Stay for some supper?” says Polly, her fists full of damp tissues—she has managed to collect herself at last—but I can tell the rest of the family is surprised and slightly disconcerted by her offer. I shake my head and stand up. Charlotte Black says she will see me out, and after a pause, Kate Wiggins gives me a smile of thanks, and then I’m saying good-bye to them all, one by one. When I come to Polly, I put my hand on her sleeve and apply just a little pressure and I make sure our eyes meet while I say, “Take care, won’t you?” and then I follow Charlotte back up the stairs.

“What wonderful flowers,” I say, as we walk down the corridor, back towards the front door.

“They keep coming—even this long after the funeral,” Charlotte says. “People are so incredibly kind, but it’s almost too much, there are no more vases, we’ve had to put them in ice buckets, and all the sinks are full of them. Alys loved flowers. You know about her garden at Biddenbrooke? Oh, it’s quite famous. You should see it in June. All white flowers, of course.”

She watches me while I put on my jacket and scarf. “Wait a minute,” she says. Then she goes into one of the rooms, and when she comes back out, she has a big hand-tied bouquet in her arms: creamy roses and ranunculus trussed up in thick, rustling layers of tissue paper, purple and sober dove-grey.

“They won’t miss them,” she says. “Take them, for heaven’s sake. Alys would have hated those flowers to just sit there in a dark room, not being looked at. Honestly, it’s fine, no one minds. Take them.”

I walk back through the slippery streets holding the flowers, the white petals cool and firm when they brush against my cheek; and although my hands are soon numb with cold from the wet stems, I find myself enjoying the conspicuous beauty of my trophy, the glances it attracts and the alternative life it seems to suggest.

In the flat, I remove the tissue paper and cellophane and discover the little note tucked inside, which I realise is from the controller of Radio 4 and her husband (To Laurence, Teddy, and Pol. All our sympathy and best love), and then I trim the stems and put the arrangement in my bedroom, so I can drift in and out of the scent as I sleep.

A week or so later, as the petals begin to tumble off in milky clusters, I find an envelope waiting in my pigeonhole when I get home from work. A stiff white card inside, the scratch of a fountain pen, the pulse of blue-black ink. It’s from Polly, inviting me to the memorial service in a month’s time. We would be so glad to see you if you felt like coming, she writes. Beneath her name, three quick, automatic kisses: XXX. I put the note on the mantelpiece, and when I mention it to Hester, I say I haven’t decided whether to go or not. Of course, this isn’t strictly true.

I sit at the back of the church, which is spectacularly full. It’s an expensive crowd: plenty of familiar faces behind the outsize shades. I see Mary Pym several pews in front, leaning over to greet a playwright; one entire row is occupied by senior representatives from McCaskill, Laurence Kyte’s publisher. As well as some distinguished actors and academics and a few cabinet ministers, there’s a healthy showing from his old Soho cohort, the poets and raffish literary hacks he ran with after Oxford (he still plays tennis with Malcolm Azaria and Nikolai Titov at weekends, according to the cuts I’ve been browsing online).

Kate Wiggins, in a tidy jacket and shiny heels, comes over to say a quiet hello before the service starts. “I wondered if you’d be here,” she says. “Polly asked for your details, I hope it was okay to give them to her.”

Of course, I say. She’s on the point of saying something else—possibly a reference to the little extra that I dropped into the discussion in the Kytes’ kitchen? Most likely she’s forgotten all about it—when there’s a general fluttering as people reach in unison for their orders of service. She murmurs, “I’ll see you later,” and returns to her seat.

Yes, Laurence and his children are entering the church, coming down the aisle. Edward—Teddy—is erect and inscrutable, wearing a defensive social polish which allows him to smile at people in the congregation, but Polly, drooping in black, reminds me of a bird in the rain. A fragile-looking elderly lady whom I take to be Alys’s mother walks with them, clasping Laurence’s arm. He has lost some weight, I think.

We stand to sing “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” Initially this trawlerman’s hymn strikes me as a strange choice, but as we work through the verses, its vision of the tin-pot vulnerability of human existence seems increasingly fitting.

All around me, people are fumbling in pockets and bags for tissues.

Teddy, composed, reads a poem by Christina Rossetti. A ...

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Book Description: Scribner Book Company, United States, 2013. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. 201 x 132 mm. Language: English Brand New Book. From the author of Her, a suspenseful, assured literary debut that explores the dark side of desire and ambition through one woman s unlikely entry into an elite world and a destiny of her own design. On a bitter winter s night, Frances Thorpe comes upon the aftermath of a car crash and, while comforting the dying driver, Alys Kyte, hears her final words. The wife of a celebrated novelist, Alys moved in rarefied circles, and when Frances agrees to meet the bereaved family, she glimpses a world entirely foreign to her: cultured, wealthy, and privileged. While slowly forging a friendship with Alys s carelessly charismatic daughter, Frances finds her own life takes a dramatic turn, propelling her from an anonymous existence as an assistant editor for the books section of a newspaper to the dizzying heights of literary society. With her unforgettable protagonist, author Harriet Lane draws readers into a tightly paced tale that careens towards an audacious ending. Transfixing, insightful, and unsettling, Alys, Always drops us into the mind of an enigmatic young woman whose perspective on a glamorous world also shines a light on those on the outside who would risk all to become part of it. Bookseller Inventory # ABZ9781451673173

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