Read the first two chapters of Soft Limits

1017_9781488081088 SoftLimits_WebChapter One

Evie

I’m not paying attention when it happens. The laneway is deep with silence and noonday shadows, and there’s a fresh breeze blowing. My eyes are following tiny birds as they hop among the cow parsley and tangled wildflowers, but my mind is far away, in a dark and bitter East Berlin winter of razor wire and searchlights and snarling German shepherds. I picture Mrs. Müller, not as I left her just now, a sturdy, gray-haired woman in a cream blouse, but as a young woman of twenty with a pale, determined face and clear blue eyes. She laid photos out before me of friends long dead. Shot going over the Wall. Arrested by the Stasi. Arrested. Disappeared. This one betrayed us—she was an informant and we didn’t know it.

There’s a break in the hedgerow and I cut across the laneway, heading for the stile. The path beyond leads a mile across the fields to my parentsʼ country house, where I’m staying over the summer with my mother, father and my sisters. All three of them.

Suddenly a car races around the bend. I freeze, turning toward this black, rushing thing, as silent as it is sleek—Why is it so quiet?—but then the driver slams on the brakes and the air is filled with the screech of tires and smoking rubber. The car stops six inches from my legs and I’m finally released from terror-induced paralysis. I scurry to get out of the way but my feet tangle and I go down with a yelp. Papers and books cascade from my shoulder bag. I stare at my burning hands pressed against the gravel, my chest heaving.

A car door opens and rapid footsteps approach. Someone hovers over me, saying something about the driver and not seeing me and asking me if I am hurt.

“No, really, I’m fine, the car didn’t touch me, I just fell,” I say, brushing gravel from my bare legs and scraped palms while simultaneously trying to grab at loose pages that are fluttering into the hedge.

His hand catches mine. “Miss,” he says, in a voice that cuts through my babble. He’s got an accent of some sort. “I will collect your papers. Are you sure you’re all right?”

I look up, and recognition and dismay stun me into silence. The man bending over me has dark, curly hair with a few silver flecks and slanted green eyes above pronounced cheekbones. His mouth is full and slightly parted. It’s a mouth I’ve seen thinned with anger, twisted into sneers and plumped with self-satisfaction. It’s the mouth of a villain.

“Monsieur d’Estang,” I say automatically.

His eyebrows shoot up, and then his concerned expression becomes a sleek smile. “Oui, mademoiselle.”

Oh, god. He thinks I’m a fan. Well, you are a fan. No—not really, not anymore. “I’m not—” And I take a deep breath, because even I can only bear making a fool of myself so many times in one day. “I think you are on your way to see my father.”

Dad didn’t mention that Frederic d’Estang, the French Canadian musical theater performer, would be coming to the house, but then he’s not much in the habit of warning us about these things. As he’s a theater agent, and a gregarious one, it’s not unusual for a star to pull into the drive while you’re eating your toast or plump down next to you at dinner.

Monsieur d’Estang studies me for a moment. “You are Anton Bell’s daughter?”

“Yes. Well, one of them.”

He puts a hand over his heart. “Miss Bell, I deeply apologize.” And he continues to apologize in the most eloquent way for several minutes while he helps me up and collects all my notebooks and papers. I try to get them off him but it’s hard to get a word in while he talks on, and then he’s taking my elbow and steering me toward the car.

“No, please, I’m fine to walk, it’s not far across the fields.”

“But Miss Bell, we are going the same way, I believe.” His eyes are so much greener in person and I feel like a mouse pinned by the jeweled gaze of the cobra. He’s had more than twenty yearsʼ professional experience convincing people of things with those eyes and I’ve only had minutes to try and discover how to refuse them.

I fail, and get into the car.

The driver adds his own apologies to Monsieur d’Estang’s while I’m buckling on my seat belt. It’s an electric car, he explains, which is why I didn’t hear it. I mutter something about not getting many of these in the countryside around Oxford.

“What were you thinking about so deeply when we nearly knocked you down?” Monsieur d’Estang’s accent is unusual, a slight North American inflection with a clipped Frenchiness about the vowels. It’s a very nice voice, and surprisingly gentle for such a tall, sultry man. I think about all the actresses and singers he’s been romantically linked with over the years. He probably knows it’s very nice.

“Communists,” I say.

He looks amused. “Oh?”

“I mean, it’s just something I’m working on,” I say quickly. “East Germany, Cold War.” Why can’t you say, “It’s a book I’m writing for a client”? Is that so hard?

“Ah, so you’re a writer. That explains the daydreaming.” He glances out the window and I glare at the back of his head. I’ll put up with being pigeonholed as awkward and boring by my sisters, but it’s irritating from strangers.

But it seems he was just checking where we were, as he turns back to me. “What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”

“What, walking?”

“No, I mean here in the countryside. Why aren’t you in London, or Paris? Somewhere with a little more excitement.”

“University,” I say, waving my hand in the general direction of Oxford. I’m working on a PhD in Victorian literature but he probably thinks I’m a gormless undergrad. I’m dressed like a gormless undergrad, in scuffed shoes and denim shorts.

“During summer? Do they not allow you any holidays in England these days?”

I’m about to reply when we turn into the driveway of my parentsʼ house. It’s something of a spread, all white columns and twining ivy and gray stone. There’s a fountain in the center of a circular gravel driveway. Lisbet, just fourteen, is lying in the grass reading a book. My elder sister, Mona, appears at the sitting-room window, and I see her peer at the car and then turn and call over her shoulder, probably to our other sister, Therese.

I realize that if I stay where I am I’m going to get mobbed by the whole family. Why are you in the car with Monsieur d’Estang? What happened to you? You fell? Oh, Evie, how funny you are! Everyone, come and look.

“Well, thanks for the lift!” I cry, grabbing my shoulder bag and jumping out of the car.

Lisbet looks up from her book as I scurry past. “Who’s that?”

But I just push into the house and run upstairs. It’s not till I’m standing in my bedroom with my back against the door that I remember I’ve left all my books and notes in Monsieur d’Estang’s car.

* * *

“Drinks!”

My father’s voice is a roar up the stairs. I glance at my phone: six thirty. He’ll have been banging around in the kitchen for the last hour and will want everyone to come and have a gin and tonic before we eat. I pull off my T-shirt and shorts and yank the first sundress I lay my hand on over my head.

Lisbet, Mona and Therese are occupying all the good spots in the sitting room when I go in, and they’re arguing about whether this year’s Dancing with the Stars contestants were as good as last year’s. Monsieur d’Estang is standing in the door to the kitchen, his back to us, talking to my father.

“He was rubbish, Lisbet,” Mona is saying. “The producers wanted to keep him on because he’s weird, and weird means ratings. Don’t look at me like that, Evie said it.”

Lisbet turns her red-cheeked glare on me as I sink into the scratchy embroidered chair by the fireplace. “Sorry, Betty-bun.” I did say that, but mainly because I was miserable about Adam and it felt good to be nasty about a stranger.

I wait for my sisters to screech at me about falling down in front of Monsieur d’Estang’s car, but they don’t so perhaps he didn’t tell them.

Mum comes in through the French doors, pulling gardening gloves off her hands. “Frederic, I didn’t know you were here.” Monsieur d’Estang turns around at the sound of his name and breaks into a smile. My mother is attractive and blonde, and her eyes are very blue. She kisses him on both cheeks. “How simply wonderful. Are you staying the week?”

“Just a day or two, if I may. I have to be back in Paris on Monday.”

Lisbet’s voice rises in outrage in defense of her favorite dancer, and Mona and Therese laugh.

“Keep it down to a dull roar, you lot,” Dad says, coming in. Then cheerfully to Monsieur d’Estang, “I’m sorry for the dreadful gaggle of women in this house. Everyone’s come home to roost for the summer holidays.”

“Not at all,” Monsieur d’Estang replies, smiling round at us.

Mona and Therese give him coquettish glances. It’s so easy for some people, flirting. I finger the scrape on my knee, trying not to think about Adam. The scrape hurts. I press it harder.

“Have you all got drinks?” Dad asks. “Mona, Therese, Evie?”

They ask for gins. I ask for sparkling water.

“Go on, have a proper drink,” Therese urges me.

“I have to write later,” I say, accepting the water from my father. Out of the corner of my eye I see Mona roll hers.

Therese looks up at Monsieur d’Estang. “Dad says you’ve been cast in a new production. What is it?”

He turns to her with a smile. “I’m playing Rochester in a new musical production of Jane Eyre.”

I look at him from beneath my lashes. Well, he’ll be perfect. Stormy, dark features, penetrating eyes and high cheekbones. He’s in a crisp white shirt now, but I can just imagine his broad figure in a frock coat and his legs in leather riding boots. Musically he’ll be good too. His singing voice can rattle windows with fury or caress with love.

Mona frowns at me. “You’ve read that book, haven’t you, Evie?”

About a thousand times. “Oh, that book. Yes, I should think everybody’s read that book.”

“Evie loves that—” Lisbet begins.

“A musical adaptation, that’s different,” I say. “What made you interested in the part?”

Monsieur d’Estang accepts a gin and tonic from my father. “It’s just such a different sort of role for me. When I was a young man I was called elfin and allowed to grow my hair out and play romantic leads. But then someone noticed what an excellent scowl I have, and my face began to harden with age, so they sheared off my curls, et voilà.” He sweeps his hand in a little flourish. “I am a villain. And, I thought, typecast for life. So it was a surprise, and a pleasant one, to be invited to play a romantic hero once more.”

I’ve seen photographs of Monsieur d’Estang as a very young man, and he was elfin, but very striking all the same. I think about the role and whether you could call Mr. Rochester, so driven by his passions, so contemptuous of the laws of society and the Church, a hero. “Some would say Mr. Rochester is a villain,” I muse out loud.

He tilts his head to one side. “Oh, that’s interesting. Would you say so?”

I’m not used to being asked to speak my opinion out loud in this house, and certainly not about something as achingly dull, as Mona would say, as nineteenth-century literature. “I don’t know,” I say, plucking at a loose thread on the side of the chair. “Maybe.”

We all finish our drinks and are herded into dinner. The talk is dominated by my father and sisters, particularly Mona and Therese. Mum and I eat and listen, and Lisbet, who hates being left out of anything, tries desperately to edge herself into the conversation.

“And what do you all do when you’re not summering here?” Monsieur d’Estang asks us.

Lisbet tells him about her dressage ribbons and Therese her law degree. Then Mona brings up her upcoming audition with an opera production company in London, and the talk inevitably becomes music-focused.

Finally Monsieur d’Estang turns to me. “You’re a writer, Evie. What are you working on?”

Therese cuts across me. “She ghostwrites autobiographies for old ladies and things.”

Thanks, Therese. You make it sound so interesting. She catches my baleful look and opens her eyes wide in a well, you do expression.

“Now, there’s a thought,” Dad says to Monsieur d’Estang. “Your Canadian agent emailed me yesterday and said he’s been trying to convince you to write your memoirs. Get Evie to do it for you,” he says, laughing. “She can cast a good sentence.”

Monsieur d’Estang gives him a tight smile. “Martin told you that, did he?”

Oh, Dad, shut up, please… I’m counting the number of weeks until the university opens again when Mona’s phone buzzes. An email has just come in. She’s got the audition she was hoping for. “God, it was like, the most perfect thing. I saw the director in a café so I went in and I just started singing. No hello or anything, I just burst into the aria and then left her my email address.”

Dad purses his lips, but his eyes are glimmering with amusement. “My daughter. I have to work with these people, you know.”

Tapping a reply into her phone, Mona mutters, “What? It worked, didn’t it? You understand, don’t you, Monsieur d’Estang?”

I’m fairly certain Monsieur d’Estang always had too much class to make a twit out of himself like that, but he just smiles and says, “Anything for a part.”

After dinner Lisbet goes straight to the living room and hunts through the DVD collection for one of Monsieur d’Estang’s recorded performances, which she’s never been interested in before. She chooses The Phantom of the Opera. I know it well. The man who plays Raoul is romantic in a bland sort of way. The Phantom, played by Frederic d’Estang, is manic, bold and powerful.

Lisbet’s mouth is open as she watches him on the screen. I’m familiar with the sensation she’s feeling: She’s in the early throes of her first proper crush, an innocent, naïve infatuation that will cycle from daisy-plucking to wistful diary entries and back again.

Little idiot, I think, and stalk upstairs.

 

Chapter Two

Frederic

“Now, Frederic. About that memoir.”

I accept the tumbler of whisky from Anton, but my heart sinks. That again. Martin promised he wouldn’t talk about the book deal he’s negotiating with the Canadian publisher with anyone. I know what he’ll say if I complain. Anton isn’t just anyone, he’s your British agent. I suspect he told Anton about the book so there’d be someone else to nag me to do it.

“What about it?” The casement windows are open and the scent of daphne is wafting in on the night air. I was just starting to relax but now I feel on edge again.

Anton sinks into the armchair next to mine. His youngest daughter—Lisbet, I think her name is—is watching Phantom on the television on the other side of the room. She’s cross-legged on the carpet, and I would find her rapt attention sweet if I couldn’t hear myself singing.

Anton gives me an arch look. “I sense you’re not keen on the idea.”

“I’m not,” I say heavily.

“It would sell.”

“That doesn’t make it a good idea.”

Anton grins. “Tell that to Martin. No, but seriously, why don’t you like the thought of a book?”

If I tell Anton the truth, he’ll ask a hundred more questions that I can’t answer. What can I say instead? “I don’t know. Who wants to read me banging on about my stage career for four hundred pages? I did this, I did that.” In a way that’s the truth, or at least a secondary truth. And I’m too young to publish an autobiography. I’m forty-one. I haven’t done everything that I want to do yet. “And it’s not like I can even write.”

“Then hire someone to write it for you.”

I grimace. “That would be worse. I’d have to read someone putting words in my mouth.”

Mona comes in and plops herself on the sofa behind her sister. Bored and hot, she seems to cast about for something to do. After a moment she scoops up a handful of Lisbet’s long hair and starts working it into a complicated braid.

Anton sips his whisky, thinking. “Do a biography then. Third-person. Someone interviews you and the people who know you best and writes it up. All the dirt along with all the bragging. I’m sure any biographer worth their salt could dig up a few dozen people who hate the very sight of you. It’s what’s called a balanced view, I hear.”

“People in the theater world who hate the sight of me? Oh, easily. The problem with a biography, though, is how do you end it? I’m not dead.”

Anton waves this away. “Oh, that’s the writer’s problem. They’ll figure something out, and it doesn’t need to be flashy. Marianne Faithfull’s book ends with a recipe for chicken.”

It’s not the writer’s problem. It’s mine. I have no idea what happens next.

Mona’s been half listening to our conversation, it seems, because suddenly she turns to us. “Honestly, get Evie to do it. She knows your career back to front and she’s read every character you’ve ever played. She could probably write half of the book off the top of her head.”

Anton gives me an appraising look.

More to put an end to the conversation than anything else, I say, “Have you got anything she’s written?”

Mona thinks for a moment. “Good question. All her ghostwritten books must be at college because I haven’t seen them here. She’s so private about that stuff. There’s probably something on her hard drive…” She makes an exasperated face, as if asking her sister about this is more trouble than it’s worth. Then she brightens. “I know! Give me your email address and I’ll send you a link.”

Anton digs his phone out of his pocket. “I’ve got his address, Mona. I’ll send it to you now.” Once he’s done this and laid his phone aside he looks back at me, thoughtful. “Why is Martin so keen for this to happen? Why now?”

I consider whether to tell him. I should tell him, as he’s going to find out sooner or later. But an irrational fear grips me. You have to get on the stage in this country in a few monthsʼ time. Do you really want to speak it aloud? I thought I was immune from silly theater superstitions, but it seems I’m not.

“Wants his cut, doesn’t he?” I say, forcing a smile. “Been talking about getting a holiday house for the last year. Then he comes up with this book idea.”

Anton grins. “That sounds like Martin.”

Once I’ve finished my whisky I head upstairs. It’s very still outside, not even the slightest breeze stirring the net curtains on this hot, sticky night. I check my email on my laptop and see that Mona has sent me a link. I click through and frown at the screen. I’m not sure what I’m looking at. There’s a list of pieces and their characters and word counts. A name catches my eye. That’s curious… I click through and start to read.

Two hours later I sit back, bewildered and amused. Evangeline Bell. Who would have thought?

Closing the laptop, I ponder things for a moment. The book’s a pain in the ass but it’s not going to go away. Maybe, with Evie, I’ve found a way to make it a worthwhile project after all.


Thank you so much for reading! You can order SOFT LIMITS here: 

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