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The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble

Five women meet for their first reading group, little realising this social gathering over books and glasses of wine might see them share more than literary debate... and will take them to places they'd never imagined

7.15 p.m.

Clare watched as the young woman passed her in the corridor. First-timer, definitely: excitement and panic were etched on her pale face as she made her way slowly down the hall, dragging the IV on its wheels beside her, legs bent and shoulders hunched, shuffling in girlish slippers bought for this special day. Her glance at Clare said, ‘Help me. When will this be finished ? When will he be here?’ Probably came in half a centimetre dilated – when she’d fiddled with her TENS machine at home for a while, then called her mother and repacked the holdall with all the impossibly small, impossibly white sleep suits, scratch mittens and hats like egg-cosies.

The double doors behind the woman swung open and a big, dark man went to her, put one hand in hers, the other round her shoulder. He handled her gingerly. He was paler than she was. A Type X, Clare thought. They were copers, the strong ones. Type Ys barely made it through the epidurals without crying. They were a few decades too late – would have been happier pacing the corridor with a cigar behind each ear. Clare liked the Type Ys better.

Elliot was probably an X. Or maybe the hybrid: Y masquerading as X. They were okay unless things got scary. Who was she kidding? She had no idea which type he’d be. Not that it mattered. Not any more.

The girl moaned, leant forward. Clare answered his imploring look. She never felt detached. Still, each story that played out, each life that started within these walls pulled her in. Still.

"Okay, hold on, let’s give you a hand. What’s your name?"

"Lynne."

"Okay, Lynne. We’ll get you back to your room. You probably need a bit of a rest. Who’s looking after you?"

A colleague appeared from behind the same double doors.

 "Sorry, Clare. Hang on, Lynne. We’ve got you. Got it from here, Clare. You’re off , aren’t you?"

 "Yes."

"Have a good night, then."

 "Cheers."

Tonight, thank God, she had a reason not to be at home, not to see Elliot. She’d probably be out again before he got back from college, and he’d be asleep by the time she made herself climb into bed beside him.

And that girl, Lynne, would be holding her baby in her arms.

7.20 p.m.

As usual Harriet climbed the stairs with a teetering pile of single socks, discarded sweaters, stray toys – the flotsam and jetsam of the day. Down was usually a mug or two, plastic cups found under beds, read newspapers and sticky plastic medicine spoons. Up, the aforementioned. Still, she supposed, with a fairly twisted smile, variety was the spice of life. Ha, ha. Domestic bliss reminded her of that silly film she’d seen once, Groundhog Day, where this guy was compelled to repeat the same day over and over again, never quite getting the girl because he couldn’t change what happened. And slightly higher up the cultural scale, wasn’t there that guy in mythology – Sissy something...Sisyphus, was it? – sentenced by the gods for some transgression to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a big hill only to watch it fall straight down again, and on, and on. At least pushing a big boulder up a hill would soon sort out these bat-wings she was developing beneath her upper arms, Harriet thought. Sweeping the flipping kitchen floor four times, loading and unloading the washing-machine three times, and answering forty-two questions about why there aren’t any more dinosaurs, and if there were, how big their poos would be, wasn’t doing much for hers.

 

It was a potent and complex emotional cocktail, part rage, part hurt, part frustration, part humiliation, and, still, part suffocating love

Upstairs, all was quiet for the first time since six a.m. Harriet followed the sound of Tim’s voice to their bedroom. He was sitting on the sofa under the window, having been allowed by his kidnappers to remove his shoes and jacket, and loosen his tie. The children, damp and clean from their bath, were huddled, one under each arm, listening to their story. Tim was reading slowly, ascribing to each character their own voice, occasionally making animated gestures. Harriet felt a twinge of habitual guilt. She usually chose the shortest story and speed-read it: her children might be forgiven for thinking that every character in literature had been raised in the middle-class south, for all the effort she made with her inflection. Still, it was easier, wasn’t it? Coming in at the end of the day, when the snot and the pasta sauce and the tears had been wiped away, and the fight over the tooth-brushing, and the frantic shoving of toys into too small cupboards had all been done. Easy to reward the exuberant greeting with warmth and affection and a story-reading fi t for Radio 4. The kids had spent their energy through the long day, and Harriet had absorbed it. Now the fight had gone out of them: they were passive, gentle. And she was catatonic.

Harriet hovered at the doorway, not wanting to go in and disturb the perfect tableau, the circle of love. Somehow, she didn’t fi t in to these moments. Instead, she deposited her bundle on the guest bed and went into the bathroom. Studiously ignoring the bubble scum around the bath, the toothpaste squeezed carelessly across the wash-basin tap, she poked ineffectually at her mad hair in the mirror and fl icked some powder across her nose and chin. She hastily drew a line of lipstick on her upper lip, then rolled her lips together in concentration. (Not for her the liner-brush-blot prescribed by glossies she only saw every three months in the hairdresser’s.)

Tim appeared in the doorway, carrying a slumped sleepy Chloe. ‘Say, “Night-night, Mummy.”’ Thumb firmly plugged in, Chloe waved her plastic beaker of warm milk vaguely in Harriet’s direction.

"Night-night, sleep tight, darling." Harriet smiled.

Behind Tim, Josh asked, "Are you going out, Mummy?"

"Yes, I am, sweetheart. Daddy’s going to look after you. I’ll be home again later, though."

 "Come and tuck me in when you get back? Even if it’s really late? D’you promise you will?" "Course I do, poppet. Give us a kiss before I go, though." Harriet walked with her son down the landing and watched him climb into his low bunk.

 "Daddy’s coming back, Mum. Don’t switch that light off. He promised he’d read me another chapter of Harry Potter when Chloe was in bed."

"Did he now? Two stories, indeed. Is Daddy trying to make me look bad?"

Her tone was light.

Suddenly Tim was behind her. "Couldn’t if I tried." He kissed her cheek as he passed her in the doorway. ‘Now, remind me where we got to, Josh."

And they were quickly lost again in their reading. Tim looked up from the pages as he heard her turn, and winked goodnight at her.

Harriet’s tread on the stairs was heavy. It’s all so bloody perfect, she thought. Except that I really don’t think I love him any more. If I ever did.

7.25p.m.

The mass of feeling sat just beneath Nicole’s ribcage, as if her lungs had been folded into thirds at the base of her throat. It was a potent and complex emotional cocktail, part rage, part hurt, part frustration, part humiliation, and, still, part suffocating love. Over the years the quantities of each had changed, but the result was the same. Almost overwhelming, drunken feeling.

She’d gone through the whole day in the closed-off state she had perfected. She had put it into the room in her mind with the padlock on it and not gone near it: to open it, and luxuriate in the feelings, would make functioning impossible. In that closed-off state, she was a dervish of control and efficiency. Dry-cleaning and shoe repairs got dropped off; casseroles with interesting herbs were put in the Aga’s slow oven; constructive play happened with the children; concise instructions were given to Cecile, the au pair.

And she looked great. Hair, makeup, figure, clothes: all as good as they always had been. Other women might tear out their hair at moments of crisis, but Nicole blow-dried hers into perfect waves. Only her heartbeat gave her away: like in that Edgar Allan Poe story, she was sure everyone she met, smiling benignly, must hear it, louder and louder, trying to get out.

She put the platter of crostini on the hall table and looked into the mirror. Downstairs it was quiet. One floor up Will, George and Martha were sound asleep, exhausted by swimming and soft-play. From the top floor, where Cecile slept, Nicole could hear the soft beat of garage music being played behind a closed door, punctuated by excited French conversation. She must be on the phone (you don’t say) to another member of the au-pair Mafia, squealing about last night’s adventures or plotting tomorrow’s. These days, au pairs stayed in and babysat, then went out after you came home – "Oh, no, Mrs Thomas, it no start, you know, really, until midnight." They could stay out until four, smoke forty cigarettes, sleep for two hours and still make animal shapes with Cheerios to persuade reluctant breakfasters to eat, smiling, at seven a.m. It sometimes made Nicole feel 105 years old. Nicole liked Cecile, though. She was easy to have around, didn’t need everything explained. And Nicole was pretty sure she was knowingly impervious to Gavin’s manifest charms, which, just now, suited her perfectly.

She stiffened as she heard his car outside, waited for the key in the lock. What to say? She had rehearsed all the different angles in the shower earlier, played out the fantasy of reacting as other women would. Although she knew that, when she saw him, she would be as she always was. How odd that this was a habit now, that this was a part of their life together. She had never thought it would be like this. That she would be like this.

God, he was beautiful. Those enormous, shining eyes: how could they not give away the secrets?

He smiled, then registered the tray of food, and that Nicole was in her coat and scarf. ‘Hello, darling. Sorry to be a bit late. It’s been a bitch of a day. What’s this, then? Where are you off to?’ He leant in to kiss her.

Nicole swerved, left him pursing at air. "I’ll be at Susan’s, darling." She spat the last word, sarcasm heavy in the air. And that was the very best she could do. That, and a defiant slam of the door. Quickly. She didn’t want him to see the food shaking on the plate in time with her arms.

7.30p.m.

The ring was pretty well perfect. Big enough, but not flashy – some you saw were so obvious that the wearer might as well have taped a facsimile of her fiancé’s black AmEx card across her left hand. A modern setting, but not so trendy it would be the avocado bathroom suite of jewellery in ten years’ time (presuming, against all the odds, that you were still wearing it). It was even the right stone for her – a ruby – and just about what she would have chosen for herself, if she’d been asked. Which would have been something of a shock, since the proposal had come more or less out of the blue. And pretty embarrassing, Polly figured, to peer into windows falling in love with the five-thousand-pound ring, wondering if he was looking at the five-hundred pound one.

But, did the choice of the right ring make its giver the right man? Was it a sign? Or just down to good observation – even basic good taste? Could he have asked someone? Cressida? Suze? She thought it unlikely. That wasn’t Jack’s style. She bloody well hoped they would have warned her if they’d known it was coming. Although probably not. That wasn’t really on. It looked pretty on her finger. She flexed her hand once more, moving the gem in and out of the light, then sniggered at her reflection in the dressing-table mirror and slipped it off . She pushed it between the folds of velvet, snapped the box shut and slid it back into her knicker drawer, hidden between partypants and period-pants.

She opened her wardrobe, vaguely looking for a sloppy sweater she thought she might have shoved in there. Ah, my schizophrenic wardrobe: right side neat and tidy – "paralegal chic", she called it – with knee-length sombre suits and court shoes, just as the partners of Smith, March and May liked them; the left was a Tracey Emin installation.

What kind of bride might she make? She’d always fancied red and plunging. Then again, you could wear that to any old Christmas party, while the white lace and butter wouldn’t-melt look wasn’t one you could get away with very often. If they did it when it was cold, how about white lace underneath, and one of those fabulous velvet capes – in red, or maybe a deep forest green? Ooh, and beaded shoes.

Oh, for God’s sake, Polly – Pollyanna, more like – aren’t you a bit bloody old for this daydreaming? And shouldn’t you be just a bit bloody wiser by now? One ring and one proposal, and you’re sixteen again.

"Mum?"

Polly grabbed the moth-eaten jumper and pulled it over her head as she went out on to the landing.

"Mum? Is this for me?" It was Daniel, fresh from football practice, five foot ten of sweaty, spotty, starving fifteen year-old, now foraging.

 "Yes, love, microwave it – two minutes on high. And there’s Christmas cake and mince-pies for after."

Polly put her head round the door of the sitting room. Her daughter Cressida, arms hugging her knees, head against a cushion, was apparently transfixed by EastEnders.

 "Cress, love, I’m at Susan’s – do you remember? Shouldn’t be late, though."

 "Okay."

Charming, Polly thought. That girl is getting surly. What the hell am I doing, playing Brides upstairs with these two lumps down here to remind me who I am, where I’ve been, and what I’m bad at?

What to say? What to answer? Yes? No? Would he settle for a "Maybe"?

More about the author

The Reading Group

Elizabeth Noble

The Sunday Times Number One bestseller

A New Year. A New Page. A New Reading Group.

Five women meet for their first reading group, little realising this social gathering over books and glasses of wine might see them share more than literary debate ... and will, in fact, take each of them to places they'd never imagined.

Harriet and Nicole are the ringleaders, best friends who can't quite admit - to themselves or one other - they might be trapped in loveless marriages. While Polly, a determined single mum, finds herself tipped off course by an unexpected proposal. Susan, usually so carefree and happy, is forced to face a shattering reality and Clare, quiet and mysterious, plainly has more on her mind than next week's book choice.

Over the coming year their worlds will intertwine in delightful, unexpected and surprising ways. Stories will be re-written as dreams are made and broken, but through it all they'll have the Reading Group, with friendship, tears and laughter featuring in every chapter of their lives.

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