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Authors: Erica James

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Precious Time

Precious Time

BY

ERICA JAMES

 

The heroine of Erica James’ seventh novel, Precious Time, is determined to make some changes in her life. Single mum Clara Costello has a secure job, a nifty sports car, a lovely house and a beguiling four-year-old son, called Ned. Ned is due to start school, but before he does Clara is determined to spend some “precious time” with him. So, feeling like an “intrepid explorer” she resigns from her job, buys a camper van and heads off on a tour of England to “show Ned what an exciting world he lived in, so that he would grow up knowing that there were endless possibilities out there for him.” Clara’s wonderful tour doesn’t go quite to plan. A mere 250 miles from their starting point they arrive in Beaconsfield in the Peak District and get “caught up in the lives of a handful of folk”.

Erica James’ novel really comes into its own here. The characters are engaging, infuriating, their individual stories involving. There’s Gabriel Liberty a 79-year-old cantankerous tyrant who’s walled up with grief in the huge decaying Mermaid house. There’s his son, schoolteacher Jonah, with his “fine boned face and disarming smile” and his difficult twin brother and sister Casper and Damson. Archie Merryman also lives in the village, a gentle soul who’s caring for his mother and trying to come to terms with the failure of his marriage to stroppy Stella. Erica James deftly weaves these disparate characters together, revealing the secrets and regrets of their emotional lives, while keeping the plot moving at a sprightly pace. This is a deft and entertaining read from this popular author.

 

ORION

 

First published in Great Britain in 2001 by Orion,

an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group Ltd.

Copyright Š 2001 by Erica James

Third impression 2001

The moral right of Erica James to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with

the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available

from the British Library.

 

Typeset by Deltatype Ltd, Birkenhead, Merseyside

 

Printed in Great Britain by

Clays Ltd, St Ives pic

 

All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

 

The Orion Publishing Group Ltd

Orion House

5 Upper Saint Martin’s Lane

London, WC2H 9EA

 

To Edward and Samuel,

whose time with me is ultra precious

 

Take good care of time, how you spend it

For nothing is more precious than time.

In one little moment, short as it is,

Heaven may be won or lost.

From The Cloud of Unknowing, fourteenth-century mystical prose work.

Acknowledgements

Heartfelt thanks to all my new and old friends at Orion, in and out of the office.

I shan’t single anyone out for preferential treatment (not even my wonderful dancing partners from Bournemouth) because you’re all special. But just to make his day, this is for Andrew Taylor: ‘Thank you, Mr Taylor, for all your help. I wish I could say it’s been a pleasure!’

Chapter One

Clara Costello’s friends were all of one opinion: that she was mad.

Away with the fairies, crazy, doolally, Harpic, not the full shilling, and two bricks short of a load, was just a random sample of what they had to say about her. And just for the record, Harpic was her favourite: it was their cute way of saying she was clean round the bend.

They had reached this diagnosis six weeks ago, at the end of January, when she had announced she was giving up her job - her well-paid and secure job, as was repeatedly pointed out to her - to take to the road in a second-hand campervan with her four-year-old son.

Louise, her closest friend and biggest critic, had been disappointed that her gallivanting was to be restricted to the shores of Britain.

‘Well, if you must indulge yourself with an early mid-life crisis, you might at least have come up with something a little more adventurous,’

she had said. ‘Backpacking round south-east Asia in search of spiritual enlightenment would sound so much more interesting.’

‘That’s because you and David are such dreadful snobs and want nothing but the most exotic postcards adorning your kitchen noticeboard,’ Clara had responded good-humouredly.

‘And what about Ned? You’ve only just got him into St Chad’s.

You’ll lose his place, and even I know the waiting-list for that school gets longer the older your child becomes.’

‘I don’t care. He’s only just turned four and he’ll learn more doing this than he would stuck in a boring classroom every day. This will be fun for him, something he’ll always remember. And, anyway, school will be waiting for him in the autumn. If I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it. This chance will never come round again.’

The car in front braked sharply and Clara did likewise. The carrier-bag of good-luck cards and presents she had been given during her farewell lunch slid forward on the passenger seat and dropped to the floor. She left them where they were, her attention caught by the sticker on the rear window of the rusting Fiat Panda in front of her. ‘No Fear’, it read. Did that mean ‘No fear’ as in ‘Not likely’, or ‘No Fear’ as in ‘Hey, look at me, I’m a free-falling daredevil who’s not scared of anyone or anything’? Either way, Clara fancied a sticker like that. Her friends were always saying how fearless she was. ‘You’re too intrepid for your own good,’ David had said, more than once.

‘Not true,’ she had argued. ‘I always reason everything out before I dive in head first.’

But what neither her friends nor her parents knew was that they were all partly to blame for this rush of blood to the head, as Louise had so charmingly referred to Clara’s shift of perspective.

It had started in the new year, when Clara’s parents had embarked on their trip of a lifetime to Australia, where they would be spending an open-ended amount of time with her brother Michael, his wife and their newborn baby. Kissing them goodbye at the airport, Clara had felt the sting of being left behind.

It wasn’t jealousy, more a case of acknowledging that it was too easy to stand still, too easy to let the glorious opportunities of life slip by without catching hold of them. For as long as she could remember her parents had talked about travelling the world, but it was only now, since her father had retired, that they felt they could justify such an extravagant trip, as if it was his reward for all the years he had put in at the insurance company he had worked for. But what if, after all that patient anticipation, one of them had fallen ill at the last minute or, worse still and heaven forbid, died? What would have been the point in all that waiting? Why, oh why, did we spend so much time putting life on hold?

Pondering this in the busy airport, she had suddenly realised Ned was crying. His tearstained face was pressed against the smeared glass of the window as he tried in vain to see his grandparents for one last time - they had promised to wave to him from their plane on the Tarmac. She bent down and held him tightly, wondering how she would ever fill the vast gap in his world created by Nanna and Granda’s departure.

The following evening she had gone for dinner at Louise and David’s. It was their usual fivesome: David and Louise, Guy and Moira, and herself. At around midnight, the time when Guy was most likely to start philosophising, once he’d progressed from wine to liqueur, he had asked, ‘If you only had a year left to live, what would you do?’

‘In your case I’d donate the time to Help the Aged,’ David had laughed. ‘You’d fit in nicely now you’re losing your hair.’

‘And, knowing you, you’d waste your year.’

Helping herself to a grape, Louise had said, ‘I’d stop dieting. I’d let myself become as fat as a pig and die happy.’ She sighed and, with her teeth, peeled a tiny length of skin off the grape. She was going through another of her weigh-myself-and-hate-myself phases.

‘I’d buy the house I’d always wanted,’ Moira said, ‘my dream home, and to hell with the expense.’

‘So what’s wrong with the one we’ve just bought?’ Guy frowned. ‘I thought it was your dream house.’

‘It doesn’t have a conservatory and the garden’s too small.’

‘It’s got five bedrooms and very nearly an acre of paddock. What more do you want?’

‘I just said what I wanted, a conservatory and—’

‘Well, I know what I’d do,’ David interrupted. ‘I’d give up work and travel.’

‘No, you wouldn’t,’ smiled Louise. ‘You’d be bored to death within a week. ‘You can’t even go on a fortnight’s holiday without reporting in. Besides, seeing too much of each other might send us over the edge.’

It was daft, drink-loaded, late-into-the-night talk, no one giving a sensible answer, no one giving the question the thought it deserved.

They were a group of thirty-somethings, with no children (apart from Clara) and no real responsibility to anyone other than themselves. But driving home later, Clara did give it some serious thought, and after she had paid the babysitter and watched her drive away, she had gone upstairs to check on Ned. Kneeling by his bed she had experienced the fierce tenderness of love that she always felt for him in moments like this. As she stroked his smooth, rounded cheek, she knew exactly what she would do if her days were numbered. She would spend her time with Ned.

As a single mother and working long hours as a production

manager for an international pharmaceutical company, she was all too aware of how little time she had with her son. It was hard to admit, but somewhere along the line she had got her priorities wrong and had ended up squeezing Ned into her busy schedule when and how she could, giving him the tired, worn-out bits of herself rather than the best.

How had she allowed herself to become the kind of person she would once have despised? The kind of person who, at the age of thirty-four, couldn’t stay awake long enough to watch the ten o’clock news through to the weather, who perpetually worked late because there was yet another problem on the packing line. The kind of person who justified it all by saying there was a mortgage to pay, nursery-school fees to find, and a voracious pension fund to feed.

The reality was that, like her friends, she had confused success with happiness. And having built that happiness on the shifting sands of material success, she was feeling the strain of sustaining it.

Financial security was a severe taskmaster, and she knew that only a monumental change of heart would alter her outlook. It had happened to her when she least expected it.

With her parents away, taking care of Ned had become even more of a juggling act. They had looked after Ned for her most days. They were wonderful with him and adored him, and were as much a part of his life as she was. They would pick him up from nursery, drive him to the park where he could play on the swings and ride his bike, then take him home to give him his tea and generally spoil him. But since they had gone to Sydney, to make the acquaintance of their new grandson, Clara had had to persuade Ned that he had to go to a new nursery school where he could stay in the after-school activity club until she came to collect him.

On his first morning his dark eyes had pleaded with her not to leave him, his tiny hand squeezing hers, sending her silent messages that this wasn’t what he wanted. It wasn’t what she wanted either, but she didn’t have any choice. She helped him wriggle out of his stiff new blazer and hung it with his satchel and plimsoll bag on his hook, which was level with her waist. She stooped to kiss him goodbye and saw to her horror that, beneath his shiny fringe, his eyes were filling.

‘It’ll be okay, Ned,’ she said, her throat so clenched she could hardly get the words out. ‘You’ll have so much fun that the day will whiz by and before you know where you are I’ll be here to take you home.’

He swallowed. ‘I want to go home. I want Nanna and Granda.’

‘Oh, Ned,’ she whispered, ‘I wish they were here too.’ Then, all businesslike, she tilted up his chin and straightened the knot of his red and grey tie, although it was already perfectly straight.

Two bigger boys cruised by, and gave Ned a contemptuous onceover.

One said, ‘What’s that in your hand?’

He smiled his best engaging smile, the one that his grandmother said was a gift from the angels, and proudly showed them what he was holding. It was a small plastic mermaid that had belonged to Clara when she was little and had gone everywhere with her. Now it went everywhere with Ned: it was his talisman and he was never without it. ‘It’s old,’ he said brightly, ‘nearly as old my mummy.’

The boys drew in close for a better look. ‘It’s a doll,’ one sneered.

‘Dolls are for girls.’ Sniggering, they sauntered away.

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