Saving Grace Ch. 01byrachlou©
Thanks, Brett, for your editing!
* * *
The front door swung shut with finality and Grace sank to the floor, utterly exhausted. Her dark hair stuck to her pale face in damp tendrils and she mindlessly pushed them away, leaving a dirty smudge of grey across her cheek.
It had been a long, hot day. Now it was almost over and she felt a sense of relief that she could finally move on with her life. The past had been boxed up and sent into long-term storage. At some point she needed to sort through everything, but not yet; it could wait a while longer.
This house was part of the healing process; a fresh beginning in a new place untainted with painful memories. It had taken a while to find it, but now, sitting on the filthy parquet floor beneath the beautiful stained glass window, she knew it had been the right decision.
The Grandfather clock chimed six o'clock and she jumped, startled by the familiar noise. It was the only piece she'd kept from the old house; the rest was in a warehouse somewhere. The clock was rather big for the hallway, but she loved it and so it had been given a reprieve. The slow monotonous ticking had become such an integral part of her life that it seemed unthinkable to pack it away.
Peter had found it in a dingy shop, hidden down a backstreet in London. He had been immensely proud of his 'bargain', she recalled fondly. For years it had sat in splendour in their small semi, hopelessly out of place amongst the modern furniture and décor. Slowly and methodically, as time passed and his income increased, Peter had replaced their cheap furniture with small pieces bought from antique fairs and sales.
Eventually they had been able to move into a larger, period house and all his 'bargains' were finally enthroned in their rightful place. She'd loved the house, but it became too big and expensive to justify living there alone. Besides, she had no desire to grow old and bitter, surrounded by sad memories like Miss Haversham.
Peter wouldn't have wanted that. Many times they'd laughingly discussed what would happen should one of them pass away. He had always insisted that she find a younger man and do everything she could to shock their neighbours.
That was immaterial now. Her new neighbours were thus far an unknown quantity, although she had seen a curtain or two twitching when the removal van drove up the street. No doubt they'd be around at some point, eager to introduce themselves and find out any gossip. It was that kind of neighbourhood.
Grace wearily climbed to her feet. She wasn't feeling especially hungry, but preparing food was part of the routine she'd forced herself to stick to since Peter died. Without a discernable pattern to her day, it felt like nothing mattered and her world began to unravel.
She had found that cooking simple dishes helped to distract her from the black despair that had threatened to overshadow everything. The act of peeling vegetables and whisking sauces was mundane enough to sooth her soul. Half the time she had ended up throwing the food in the bin, but at least it had helped to pass a few dismal hours.
Time used to be a commodity that was in short supply. Leaving the house in a mad rush every day, battling the commute into work, endless hours spent rushing around between supermarket and home – time was something she had always wished there was more of.
Now she had too much of it. She could have gone back to work, but she had chosen not to. Money was not an issue any more since Peter had left her more than adequately provided for. Her job had never exactly rocked her world and, when the chance arose, she had left without as much as a backward glance. It seemed an ideal opportunity to find another path to follow.
But for the moment she was content just spending long days thinking, reading and remembering. The move had taken a lot of her time and energy in the last couple of months. Now she was finally here, in her new home, she was going to spend the summer taking stock of her life again. It was time to decide exactly what she wanted to do.
She just had to figure out what that was.
* * *
Waking up in an unfamiliar room was disconcerting. The early morning sun had found a chink through the blinds, and small ribbons of light danced across the bed. Grace felt a sliver of excitement when she thought ahead to everything she needed to do. It was good to have some purpose to her day. With a burst of energy she jumped out of bed and went downstairs to make her first cup of coffee.
By mid afternoon, she was tired and dusty. The last occupant of her house had been an elderly woman. It was obvious that in her last years, cleaning had not been high on her agenda. As a result the layers of grime and dust were ankle deep through every room.
Grace had decided to make a start on the most important room – the kitchen. Whilst at some point she intended to remodel the cavernous space, for now the ancient cupboards and larder were remaining as they were. Cobwebs lurked in every crevice and, after a few hours, Grace was beginning to feel the pain of scrubbing every square inch. But it would be worth it in the end. Eventually she'd have a beautiful airy room that opened out onto the garden.
That space was something she hardly dared look at for now. It stretched back towards the boundaries of the golf course, not overlooked at all - something for which she'd paid a premium, as houses like this were much in demand. Fortunately for her, the state of the property had put many people off, but her main advantage was the fact she'd been a cash buyer. The late Mrs Colman's son, Richard, seemed anxious to get his mitts on his dear mom's money as soon as possible.
It made her shiver to recall the oily little man's gaze, watching her closely when he'd first shown her round the house.
* * *
"So, when do you think you'll be able to complete, Mrs. err...Piper?" He smiled at Grace, hopefully waiting for permission to use her first name.
She ignored the hint; she had no intention of allowing him any incentive to step beyond the boundaries of their limited relationship. "Assuming we have no problems with the survey, as soon as possible, Mr Colman," she said coolly.
"Oh, please call me Richard," he smiled again. "That sounds excellent. If you let me know the name of your solicitor, I'll set things in motion from my end." His gaze flickered down her body once more and Grace struggled to control her urge to run away.
"Perhaps you'd like to take another look around?" he offered hopefully, edging closer. "I don't believe we saw the attic, did we?"
"Attic?" said Grace in surprise. It must have escaped her notice when she'd read the details from the agent. A large space in the roof had plenty of potential and this sent a small jolt of excitement through her veins.
"Oh yes, the house has two large rooms in the roof space," explained Richard helpfully as they walked down the long passageway towards the back stairs. "Mother used them for storage and to be honest, I have no idea what's up there anymore."
She followed him up the narrow staircase, past the first floor landing and up a second staircase. The door at the top was locked and Richard frowned crossly. "Damn," he said. "The key must be in the kitchen. I'll have to go and fetch it."
Grace nodded agreeably and thought privately that the exercise would probably do him good. He turned and edged past her, needlessly brushing against her body even though there was plenty of room and she felt a surge of revulsion when his hands briefly touched her waist. The man was like a snake, she thought with distaste, and she shivered despite the warmth of the afternoon.
Before too long Richard was back, panting from the exertion of climbing two flights of stairs once again. Large damp patches flowered under the arms of his cheap cotton shirt and he looked uncomfortably warm. Grace tried not to show her disgust. She had no desire to offend him and jeopardise the sale.
The door opened with a creak and Grace was delighted to see a cavernous and light space under the eaves of the old house. At some point it must have been servants' quarters as there was an old iron bedstead in the corner, along with numerous boxes and cartons full of unidentifiable things.
"I must go through this stuff," frowned Richard, wiping his sweaty brow again.
Grace could clearly see the cogs turning in his brain as he surveyed all the potentially valuable antiques and collectables. No doubt he was counting the financial reward to himself. He made her feel quite sick and she turned away, wishing he would leave her alone to think in peace.
He glanced at his watch. "Have you seen enough now?" he asked.
"Yes, I think so," she replied. "I'll be in touch with the agent later."
"Excellent!" beamed Richard. They walked back downstairs and Grace felt certain Richard was staring at her ass all the way down.
"Thanks for your time," she said politely as she edged out of the door and into the warmth of the afternoon sun again.
"Not at all, Mrs. Piper," he said. "Trust me, it was my pleasure." He smiled ingratiatingly and Grace sighed inwardly. God he was repugnant. She turned to head back towards her car.
"Mrs. Piper?" he called after her.
"Yes?" she replied impatiently.
"Perhaps you'd like to have a drink with me one evening?" His florid face was beamed hopefully as he waited for her response.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Colman," she said. "I'm far too busy at the moment, but I'll give it some thought. Maybe another time..." She smiled in what she hoped was an expression of sad regret.
His face fell in sharp disappointment and for a moment she felt guilty. But, she reminded herself - did she really want to spend an evening fighting off his advances? The answer was, no, she didn't.
"Okay, well if you change your mind, let me know," Richard said flatly, a mask of politeness slipping over his face instantly. "Well goodbye for now." He turned away and headed back inside the house without a backwards glance.
Grace breathed a sigh of relief as she climbed back into her car. As far as she was concerned she'd handled his advances well enough. She saw him staring at her from the porch window and briefly waved at him as she drove away, but he didn't wave back.
* * *
Paintbrush in hand, Grace grumbled crossly when she heard the doorbell chime. She wanted to finish the wall before the light faded too much and the last thing she needed was some bloody irritating salesman trying to flog her cheap double glazing.
Opening the door, she began to give the 'bugger off' spiel, but the woman standing there with a cake tin in her hand smiled cheerfully and stopped Grace in her tracks.
"Hi!" her visitor said. "I thought I'd come and introduce myself – I'm Jennifer, your next door neighbour."
"Oh hi, I'm Grace. Sorry, I wasn't expecting any visitors!" Grace apologised, feeling wrong footed as she stood in the doorway with her hair all over the place and yellow streaks of paint on her arms. "Would you like to come in for a moment?" she heard herself saying. She figured she might as well bite the bullet now as opposed to later. The painting would have to wait.
"Ooh yes, that would be lovely," replied Jennifer. "I'd love to see what you've done with the old place."
Grace headed for the kitchen while Jennifer kept up a steady stream of conversation. The other woman's heels clacked on the tiled floor and Grace was horribly aware that she looked like a total slob compared to her immaculately turned out neighbour. One of these days she'd really have to buy some new clothes. She'd lost so much weight in the last year nothing fit her anymore. The faded blue tracksuit bottoms she currently wore hung off her slight frame - unlike the smart cotton dress Jennifer was wearing which barely held her ample curves in check.
"Tea or coffee?" Grace asked politely when Jennifer parked herself at the table with the air of one who was here to stay for a while.
"Coffee, please. It'll go with the cake I made – shall we have a slice?" It was clear that Jennifer liked her own cakes rather a lot. She stood and began to root in the cupboards looking for plates before Grace even had a chance to draw breath.
Grace hid a smile as she made two coffees. She was forced to admit that the cake did look nice. Plus she'd missed lunch again, so now that the thought was in her mind, she realised she was pretty hungry.
"Mm this is good!" she said between mouthfuls of rich coffee and walnut cake.
Jennifer smiled bashfully. "Thanks – my cakes always go down rather well at the Women's Institute, even if I do say so myself," she admitted proudly.
"So, how have you settled in?" she continued, her gaze flickering with interest over the untidy room still strewn with cartons.
"Good, thanks," said Grace. She sensed that Jennifer was fishing for information, but she had no intention of divulging anything just yet. For all she knew Jennifer was gossip central round this neck of the woods and the last thing she wanted was her business being discussed by the whole street. She didn't need pitying stares when she went out. She'd had enough of those to last a lifetime.
"So...are you on your own here?" Subtle, Jennifer was not, thought Grace with irritation.
"Yes," she responded airily. "How about you?"
"Oh no, my husband, Malcolm, is a doctor you know." Jennifer looked expectantly at Grace, waiting for her to go gaga at the news she had a doctor for a neighbour.
"Oh, that's nice," said Grace, examining the table with interest. Frankly, Jennifer could have been married to bloody David Beckham and she wouldn't have been impressed. The knowledge that her wall had been left only half painted was starting to grate on her nerves. Just like Jennifer.
"He's a consultant, you know." She tried again to garner a more enthusiastic response, but Grace stood up with her empty mug.
"Anyway," Jennifer said hurriedly when it became apparent that her new neighbour wasn't swooning in admiration, "the reason I popped over – other than to introduce myself of course!" She laughed self deprecatingly. "We're having a little soiree on Friday night and I wondered if you'd like to come. You'd be able to meet a few of the other neighbours and, well, it would be nice..."
Grace panicked immediately. The last thing she needed was to be thrown into some kind of social snake pit. The trouble was, now that Jennifer had put her on the spot, her mind had gone utterly blank and she couldn't think of a damned excuse to save her life.
"Err...I..." she stuttered helplessly, feeling like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
"Excellent – that's settled then," interrupted Jennifer. "We'll see you at eight o'clock ish - number forty-two." She stood up in a determined fashion and popped her cake back in the tin. "I'll leave you this," she added generously. "Just bring the empty tin over when you're ready."
Oh great, thought Grace. Now she not only had a party to look forward to – she also had a trip to return the tin too. Maybe she should have moved to the Outer Hebrides instead?
Jennifer breezed out on a cloud of expensive perfume and Grace felt the beginnings of a monstrous headache forming right behind her eyes as the fragile peace she'd attained in the last week swiftly disappeared.
She found herself sat in the half painted yellow living room staring into space. Socialising with a bunch of snobs and gossipmongers had never been her idea of fun. At least before she'd always had Peter at her side as moral support. He had been her rock to cling on to when it all became too shallow and pretentious.
The bitter tears came from nowhere. The knowledge that she still missed him with every fibre of her being, hit her like a sledgehammer, and she fell onto the settee, sobbing brokenly, uncaring of the paintbrush and tin that sat waiting.
* * *
Grace could hear faint music as she slowly walked down the gravelled driveway of number forty-two. Her stomach was coiled tighter than a spring and she had to force herself to relax a little. Her pale blue dress swirled around her calves and her long hair curled over her shoulders in shiny waves.
For ages she had stood in the bedroom, agonising over what to wear. Upon close examination, she realised her wardrobe was woefully lacking in fashionable party attire. She actually had to struggle to recall the last time she'd attended any kind of social event. Of course there had been the funeral, but that still remained a hazy blur in her mind, one she didn't care to think about even now.
Now, with several outfits strewn all over her bed, she stared at her reflection and wondered why the hell she had agreed to this. All she wanted to do at this moment was curl up in front of the television and forget about the rest of the world. Instead, she had to face the endless polite and curious questions about her life and why she was alone.
It was always the same – strangers probing for information and then, when they realised she'd been widowed recently, they immediately backed off, embarrassed and fearful of saying the wrong thing.
It was a phenomenon that had manifested itself among most of their friends immediately after Peter's death. One by one they'd stopped calling and coming round. They didn't know how to cope with her grief and thus decided it was easier to stay away.
Not that Grace had minded all that much. She was a very insular person and in many ways she had welcomed the solitude. It gave her time to come to terms with her chaotic emotions, rather than having to portray a false façade of calm acceptance.
When their house went up for sale, only one person had rung and asked her where she was moving. Grace had answered the polite enquiries, but not offered a forwarding address. She had no desire to stay in touch; she didn't need anyone.
Now, as she stood on the threshold of Jennifer and Malcolm's house, she almost turned on her heels and headed back home.
"Hello," said a cheerful voice. "Are you going in?" A grey haired man appeared behind her, holding a bottle of wine in one hand.
"Err...yes, I think so," Grace said hesitantly.
"You think so?" His eyes twinkled with amusement. "Oh dear, you must have heard the rumours about Jennifer's parties..."
Alarm swept through her until she realised he was joking. She felt the tension ease a little and she smiled at him. "Hmm, I'll not be staying long then!" she said lightly.
"Between you and me, nor will I be," the man said dryly. "I'm Scott, by the way. My wife and I live at number twenty-seven. Helen isn't back from Germany until tomorrow, so I'm all alone tonight." He pulled a comically sad expression and Grace fleetingly wondered what his wife did that took her abroad.
"I'm guessing since I haven't seen you before, you're our new neighbour?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm Grace Piper," she replied, holding out her hand politely. Scott shook it firmly and grinned.
"Welcome to Orchard Mews, Grace!" he said cheerfully. "Now, shall we go forth and party?"
She allowed him to take her arm companionably and he pushed open the heavy door. The deafening noise immediately washed over her as Scott propelled her firmly towards the first throng of strangers stood in the opulent hallway, talking and laughing. Rallying her courage, she pasted a smile on her face as curious faces turned in their direction.
* * *
Despite her misgivings, as she stood on the terrace outside, Grace realised to her surprise that she had rather enjoyed herself so far. Most of the people she'd been introduced to were pleasant and friendly. They didn't pry too much when she said she'd moved here alone and although she knew in all likelihood they were curious, at least they didn't show it.
Scott had been wonderful. He'd taken it upon himself to make her feel right at home amongst the other guests who'd all known each other for years. It could have been horrifically awkward, but in the event it wasn't in the slightest.