For years, Marcia Willett has touched readers with her poignant novels about the intricacies of friendship and family. Now, in The Summer House, she explores the secrets that families keep, and the decisions, made in an instant, that can change our lives.
Matt has always felt that there was something missing in his life. His mother kept all his childhood memories in a small inlaid wooden box, along with many photos of Matt as a child. But something about these photos has always puzzled Matt. Why doesn't he remember those clothes? The toys? And where, in the photos, is his sister Imogen?
Meanwhile, Imogen is living with her husband and their baby in a rented cottage. Ever since she was a child, she has loved the Summer House, a charming cottage on the grounds of a beautiful and ancient house in Exmoor. When she has a chance to buy but her husband refuses to move, Imogen begins to question the seemingly picturesque life she has built for herself. Eventually, the Summer House provides the key to the strange and tragic secret which has affected everyone involved.
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The Summer House is MARCIA WILLETT's twelfth novel to be published in the U.S. Her novels are available in ten countries around the world. She lives in Devon, England.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Summer House, The
PART ONECHAPTER ONEThe photographs were in a packet at the bottom of the rosewood box. He flicked through them, surprised to see that each one of them was of him - a photographic record spanning thirty years - and then tucked the packet back into the box. Solid, square, with pretty gold inlay, the box carried not only his mother's small treasures but a whole cargo of family history. It had belonged to his father's mother and therefore held a special link with the man whom he could barely recall. His memories of this shadowy figure had been jealously guarded, eked out and plumped up with a dozen tiny scraps of information dropped from the conversations of friends and family.'Of course, you can't remember him,' he'd say to his small sister, Imogen. 'You were just a baby when Daddy died.'She didn't care; Im was blessed with a happy, confident nature that made it nearly impossible for him ever to feel superior. She'd shake her head cheerfully, quite content for him to be the one who knew. She didn't care about the box either. The small treasures he was allowed - under hismother's surveillance - to put into the delicately scented interior were too fragile for her tiny, destructive fingers: a perfect shell, a frail crimson leaf, a shiny unblemished conker.'Shall we put it in the box, Mummy?' he'd shout, running to bring her these gifts, and he'd watch whilst the little ceremony was performed: the box lifted from its shelf, the key produced and inserted into the gold lock and the lid opened. Eagerly he'd bend to look in, to see the familiar contents. If his hands were clean he'd be allowed to unfold his grandmother's small silk handkerchief kept in the embroidered, soft suede pochette that smelled of lavender; to take out the letter his father had written to him all the way from Afghanistan, and to look at the photograph that had been enclosed. The letter, which his mother would read to him, made him feel proud and strong; his father told him to be a good boy, to look after his mother and little sister, and then they would look at the photograph: his father smiling at them, standing in a dry, dusty, arid place. The biggest treat was to play with the carved and painted wooden cat which, like a Russian doll, separated into two halves to reveal yet another smaller cat, and then another, until the final, delightful surprise: a tiny mouse. Each cat had a wickedly mischievous expression and even the mouse appeared to be content with his lot, his painted whiskers curling jauntily, one eye closed in a wink.As he grew older the enchantment gradually faded until he forgot the box altogether except as one of the familiar objects that moved with them from the small house in Finchley to the big, ground-floor flat in Blackheath, and finally to his mother's room at the nursing home.Now the box and its contents were his; the packet ofphotographs probably collected together and added very recently. Matt sighed and pushed the box and photographs away. It was odd, and perhaps would be hurtful to her, that there were none of Imogen, but she needn't know. Their mother had been distanced from them for so long, first with her gradual descent into depression and alcoholism, and then with the onset of liver disease, that it was unlikely that Imogen would be upset: they were both too used to their mother's mercurial moods and irrational behaviour to attach much emotional importance to her actions. Even so, he wouldn't tell Im.Matt took the packet out of the box again and flipped through the photographs. There was something odd about them but he couldn't quite decide what it was and he was too restless and preoccupied to study them more closely. The prospect of his next book, unwritten and unformed, pressed on his consciousness. Each new promising idea proved dull, each putative plot stale. And Im's phone call had unsettled him.'We're having such a great time,' she'd said. 'I can't believe we're living down here on Exmoor at last, even if it is in a holiday let and we still don't know where we'll go at Easter. Jules is a bit twitchy but it's utter heaven being a few miles away from Milo and Lottie. Why don't you come down for a few days? They'd love to see you and so would we.'Matt stood up, wandered to the window and stared down into the dismal late winter afternoon. The city street was damp with misting rain; the roofs of the parked cars glistened with chill moisture. In his mind's eye he saw the rosy sandstone house, standing beneath the high bare shoulder of Hurlstone Point, looking over the village of Bossington towards Dunkery Hill and westwards across Porlock Vale tothe sea, and he felt a childish longing to be there with them all.'What would we have done,' Im had once asked him, 'without Milo and Lottie?''The odd couple,' he'd said lightly, not wanting to admit how important those two people were to him.'They're our real family,' she'd said, 'aren't they? They saved our lives and kept us normal.'Now, Matt glanced at his watch: twenty past three. If he got a move on he could be there by suppertime: in the galley kitchen at the High House, Milo - tall, thin, elegant - would be stooping over a saucepan of delicious soup or some exotic sauce that simmered on the Aga. He'd be calling through the archway to Lottie in the breakfast room, who'd be sitting at the long, narrow table that was always piled with books and newspapers, and reading some article or letter aloud to him. He'd call a response and they'd both roar with laughter.Matt felt another stab of longing for the familiar scene. He picked up his mobile and scrolled down the names until he reached Lottie's. Half an hour later he was on his way.
Lottie tracked Milo down in the garden room, sitting in an old cane chair in a warm splash of February sunshine. His beaky eagle's profile was fierce with concentration as he frowned at the newspaper he was reading; his long thin legs were stretched out and crossed at the ankles showing a glimpse of red sock. A golden-brown spaniel was curled under his knees.'Matt's on his way,' she said. 'Isn't that fun? He'll be with us in time for supper.'Milo put down the newspaper. 'Now that is good news. How is he?'Lottie made a face; wrinkled her nose. 'Can't quite tell. A bit mere. I daren't mention the new book, of course.'Milo shook his head. 'Poor old boy. He's paying for all that early success. An international bestseller and a Hollywood film with your first book is a very difficult act to follow. Everyone sitting round waiting for the next one to be a disaster.''He says his mind is quite blank with the terror of it. He thinks it was just a fluke and he'll never write anything again. At least he's financially secure, and I'm sure it will happen in time. I'm just making some tea. Shall I bring it out here? Now who's that?'She stepped forward to the window, shielding her eyes from the low slanting sun, staring down the long drive which wound up from the village between unfenced fields. The car slowed to allow several ewes to amble across the track and then came on, bumping over the cattle grid and disappearing round the end of the house.'It's Venetia,' Lottie said, resigned. 'I'll go and meet her.'Milo showed no especial delight at the advent of his mistress. 'Don't let her see the cake,' he advised. 'You know her. There won't be a crumb left. Never known a woman who could pack in the carbohydrates like Venetia.''And still remains as thin as a pin,' said Lottie enviously. 'Sickening, isn't it?'She went out into the warren of rooms that led through to the hall and met Venetia coming in from the little back porch. Elegant and gaunt as an old greyhound, she bent to embrace Lottie, lightly touching a perfectly maquillée cheek to Lottie's unadorned one.'The snowdrops are simply amazing, Lottie,' she said. 'Not only here at the High House but everywhere. Andthe daffodils are just beginning. So heartening, isn't it?'Lottie smiled. 'Spring is coming,' she agreed. 'We were just going to have some tea. Would you like some? Milo is in the garden room. I'll bring it through.''Darling, that would be very sweet of you. No cake, I suppose? Or a choccy bic? I'm simply ravenous. Why do good works make one so hungry? I've just been visiting poor old Clara. She's simply gaga now, I'm afraid, and I'm quite exhausted with answering the same question over and over, and today she couldn't remember who I am. She was such a pretty girl. Oh, Lottie, it's all so bloody depressing, isn't it?'At the back of the still-beautiful, deeply shadowed violet eyes, Lottie saw the flicker of fear and horror.'But spring is coming,' she reminded the older woman, 'and there's cake for tea.''Oh, darling.' Venetia's voice was full of gratitude. 'You are such a comfort. Honestly.''Go and find Milo,' said Lottie. 'Matt's coming down for a few days so he's feeling very cheerful.'Venetia wandered away and Lottie heard her greet the spaniel that came to meet her. Presently he appeared in the kitchen. He was a pretty fellow; the result of a mating between a cocker and a Sussex spaniel. He had a very sweet nature - though, as Milo unkindly observed, he was as thick as two short planks. His coat was the colour of sticky toffee pudding, one of Milo's favourites, and he'd called the charmingly roly-poly puppy 'Pud'.'All these new crossbreeds,' Milo had said to her. 'Labradoodles, sprollies and sprockers. Well, if a cross between a springer spaniel and a cocker is a sprocker, then a cross between a Sussex and a cocker is a sucker. Which just about sums up Pud nicely.'He sat now, looking hopefully at Lottie as she prepared the tea.'You heard the word "cake",' she told him, 'but you won't get any.'She thoug...
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