"All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." —Leo Tolstoy
As a writer, Celia Bayley's insights into the ways of the human heart made her famous. And why not? She had married a handsome war hero and produced three successful children. Yet, as her family gathers for her funeral, the diaries and notebooks and letters she left behind paint a very different picture, one that shocks those who loved her and will force them to confront the difficult conflicts in their own lives.
A life torn by secrets is revealed. The husband she adored had deceived her early in their marriage and broken her heart, though they persevered as a family. Then, years later while on a trip with friends, she meets a man for whom she feels a passion she never believed possible. In one brief moment, her whole life is turned inside out.
Utterly compelling and beautifully written, The Affair makes vividly real the agonizing choice one woman must make. Powerful and moving, the novel is about marriage, families, and the definition of happiness.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Alicia Clifford is a novelist, journalist, and screenwriter whose books have been shortlisted for numerous awards. She lives in South London.
Alicia Clifford is a novelist, journalist, and screenwriter whose books have been shortlisted for numerous awards. She is the author of the novel The Affair. She lives in South London.
Read an Excerpt
By Alicia Clifford
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Alicia Clifford
All rights reserved.
If perfect understanding can exist between two people, each bound by different pasts and set in distant shelves, might not all magic be possible?
Appended to undated shopping list (bone from butcher, coffee, tuna, matches).
The day after the death, a large exotic insect was noticed in the sitting room of Parr's, where members of the family had gathered to discuss funeral plans.
"You might like to know, Mummy, there's a socking great beetle on your picture." Robert sounded angry, but only because he was stressed and fearful. There was a list in front of him because his approach to any challenge was to reduce it to a series of columns. He'd got as far as "Hymns." For the time being, grief had been marginalized.
His seven-year-old niece Bud, with her keener eyesight, corrected him. "It's not a beetle. It's a moth." She'd been stroking her grandmother's limp hands, staring imploringly into her empty eyes. But now, as if giving up, she rose and approached the picture Robert had indicated.
"Leave it," cautioned Sarah, as her daughter climbed on a chair. Her voice was very soft and careful. As she kept reminding everyone, just because Bud seemed fine, that didn't mean anything. She'd been staying with her grandparents when her grandfather had suffered a fatal heart attack, soon after supper was served. It was she who had telephoned her parents, even as the resident nurse was still absorbing the situation. "Grandpa has passed away," she'd announced in an astonishingly composed voice. (Nurse-speak, of course, because nobody in Bud's family referred to death like that.) And now, as if all that hadn't been traumatic enough, she was forced to witness the effect on her adored grandmother.
For all their efforts to behave normally, the family were frantic. For years they'd resented the costly invasion of nurses and caregivers; but now they'd have offered any amount of money if their mother, Celia, would only return to her former self. Why couldn't she see the death as a mercy, like everyone else? She was only sixty-three — years younger than their father had been — but now seemed bent on following him to the grave. She wouldn't eat, wouldn't speak. But of course the marriage had been famously happy, and his long illness had only brought them closer.
Then Bud shocked them all by announcing, voice shrill with excitement: "It's him! The moth's him!"
"Oh please!" thought Margaret, closing her eyes. She knew it was not acceptable to criticize a sibling's child, but this was too much. Bud had behaved commendably in frightening circumstances, but she should never have been allowed to sit in on the funeral discussion.
For all her usual indulgence, even Sarah seemed at a loss how to react. And before anyone could stop her, the child made things worse. Her attitude became conspiratorial, almost loverlike: "He's come back because he's really really worried about you, Gran!" Suddenly she let out a shriek. "Look! He moved his wings! He heard me! He's saying yes!"
Celia had been staring into space with that dreadful new apathy, like a travesty of the daydreamer they'd grown up with. "Off with the fairies again," their father used to tease. But suddenly, to their very great relief, she was back — kind and warm and engaged. "What a perfectly wonderful idea, darling!"
Margaret (who was good on nature) said tersely: "It looks like an elephant hawk moth to me. But it's not possible. Not in January."
"It's Grandpa!" Bud crossed her arms and glared at them.
"Grandpa ..." Celia echoed, sounding bemused; then she gave a delighted smile as if inviting everyone to join the game.
Her children exchanged exhausted, uneasy glances — what was this madness? Then they believed they understood. They were pretty sure their mother didn't subscribe to the myth of reincarnation any more than they did. No, this had to do with applauding in a grandchild something she'd failed to find in them. They'd no imagination, as Robert would cheerfully admit. "Not a smidgeon," he'd say on behalf of them all, sounding exactly like his father. "We're doers, not thinkers." And once he'd demanded, sounding a little aggrieved: "Who wants to sit in a room on their own, putting a lot of invented people through their paces?" Celia was the only writer in the family — and good luck to her!
Actually, Bud didn't believe in reincarnation, either. She'd no idea where the suggestion had come from. But the magical effect she'd achieved now provoked an extraordinary reaction in her mother and aunt and uncle. Without conferring, they plunged into making fools of themselves. It was a measure of their concern. They'd have done anything to stop Celia from sliding back into that terrible despair.
"It's funny because he loathes that picture," observed Margaret, who'd never have come out with such silliness if her new husband, Charles, had been there. It was a dingy old oil painting of half a dozen horsemen straggling over a vast plain, which her mother had found somewhere. The family had always assumed their father disliked it because the riders were disorderly and going nowhere and therefore bound to annoy a former soldier.
"Why's he sitting on it, then?" asked Robert, mouth twitching as he imagined describing the scene to his wife, Mel. He ran a hand over his pink, worried face, like smoothing it out. "Would he want to come back?" he murmured a little tactlessly.
"He'll be worrying that we won't arrange things properly," said Sarah. "He's keeping his beady eye on us all." Unlike Margaret, she longed for her husband to be there. Whoopee had a wonderful sense of humor. He'd have adored watching the Bayley family make fools of themselves.
Bud shrieked: "He's wearing his specs!"
"So he is!" agreed Celia because, by now, she'd risen to her feet and crossed the room a little shakily to examine the moth, too.
The two of them were behaving as if they were the only people in the room. But when Bud began crooning, "Dear little Grandpa!," the others came to their senses.
"That's quite enough!" said Sarah, unusually sharply.
However, Celia was still staring at the moth. Earlier, she had failed to react when "Onward Christian Soldiers" was suggested as the first hymn. But now she said, sounding brisk and anxious to wrap up the meeting, "Perhaps 'Jerusalem the Golden' might be better."
The strange thing was that the day after the funeral, the moth vanished, never to be seen again. "Daddy's last inspection," Robert called it — as a joke, of course.
It was a turning point, they came to understand: the moment their mother shook off the seductive tug of death and chose, instead, the pleasure of watching her grandchildren grow up. Also — and here was the astounding part — she would at last become a real writer.
* * *
Nearly twenty years on, keeping each other company on the eve of her far sadder funeral, Margaret and Sarah recalled that extraordinary demonstration of the power of the will.
"If that hadn't happened ..." Sarah began.
"Well, this wouldn't have," Margaret responded a little sharply as if her sister had stated the obvious.
"Why didn't she warn us?"
They'd been over this already. Was it their fault — as Margaret was indicating with that helpless, irritated gesture — that their mother hadn't warned them what to expect after her death? Or was it possible that modest woman had never guessed? The family was in shock and yet, to the outside world, had to pretend otherwise.
Sitting at their mother's table in her kitchen, halfway through yet another bottle of good wine from her cellar, the sisters still expected her to enter at any minute, bent and diminished by age, but still curious, still amused, still possessed of a remarkable memory. "Oh good!" she'd have said in her courteous way, "that Sancerre needs drinking" (though it had been kept for rare dinner parties). She'd have joined them to listen to the wind moaning down the chimney, bursts of rain spattering the black windowpanes like tears. She'd have smiled at Robert's lists pinned everywhere, his complicated plan for when the mourners came to the house after the funeral the following day; the sound of his voice from his father's old study next door as he practiced his address, stopwatch in hand.
"I'm not going to speak about my mother as a writer," Margaret and Sarah heard him boom. And then he stopped and began again. "I'm not here to talk about my mother's writing. Others far better qualified than me have already done that ... Oh, damn and blast!"
The sisters exchanged smiles.
"Others far better qualified than I have already done that ..."
The house still held her flavor, like a vase just emptied of flowers. Staring at a diary pinned on the wall, so poignantly empty of spindly blue writing after August 10, they still expected to hear the irregular tap of her stick, the gentle humming of a wartime tune (as if part of her pined for that terrifying era). But it was strangely comforting to feel cross with her. Of course, she should have prepared them!
However, the truth was, her writing had been ignored within the family. Their father had set the tone. "Mummy deserves nothing but praise for the way she keeps at it!" he'd marveled, but almost in the same breath confessed very apologetically, "Not my sort of thing, I'm afraid." So they'd never read her books, either. Looking back, it seemed to them that their mother had colluded in this. "Froth," she'd once laughingly described her work. And so it happened that when, at age sixty-four, she wrote a novel that attracted critical attention, they failed to take account of that, too, though it was the first to be published under her real name.
Now they stared at photographs of her in the newspapers and re-read the lengthy obituaries and longed to be able to check with a simple phone call that the person given such prominence and their mother were the same. According to a top-ranking literary novelist, who'd started all the fuss, the woman who'd begun by writing romances had transformed herself into "a sculptor of the human condition; a writer of enormous passion and truth." The tabloids had seized on the story, too, with excruciating (and inaccurate) headlines like, "The eighty-year-old who wrote porn." It added spice, of course, that she'd been married to a distinguished soldier. But at least everyone had stressed the happiness of the marriage — the only bit to come as no surprise to the family.
In widowhood, Celia had taken to working in a spare room at the top of the house, which was kept locked. But now, with leisure to explore the house (which had, after all, become theirs), her children discovered it had been converted into a proper writer's den with a good supportive chair and an expensive word processor and built-in bookcases bursting with reference books as well as numerous editions of her novels. "Did you know Gran could use a computer?" Sarah had asked her daughter, Bud, only to be told: "We set it up for her." Sarah wanted to ask more questions but was afraid of appearing foolish.
The room was extraordinarily messy. There was paper strewn everywhere, much of it yellow and crisp with age. There were letters and bills and notebooks and diaries and newspapers. It seemed amazing that anything finished had emerged from such chaos, let alone critically acclaimed novels. "I must sort this out," Celia had been heard to remark worriedly only a month before, as if she sensed a dark presence stalking her, just out of sight. She'd died suddenly in her bed, leaving the junk untouched.
There came a soft tapping on the kitchen door and the sisters exchanged looks.
"Only me! I'm not interrupting, am I?"
Robert's wife, Mel, had ostensibly come to make a lemon and honey drink lest he strain his voice before the funeral. However, they guessed she was longing to confide in them about her own problems. "Oh well ..." she kept saying, but with less and less optimism.
"Oh dear," said Sarah when she'd gone. "It's all so impossible, isn't it?" And that was the closest she came to saying that however much she and Margaret might privately sympathize with their sister-in-law, their loyalty would always belong to their brother. But they'd no time for others' troubles. Grief was working magic. Suddenly it seemed irrelevant that one of them was happy and the other was not. For the first time in years, they were getting on.
Margaret rose from her chair and opened the fridge to retrieve the half-empty bottle. She paused for a moment, admiring their work.
It was living through the war, they understood, that had made their mother so bad at throwing anything away. They'd removed a bowl of malodorous stock, a soggy half cucumber corseted in plastic, a leatherlike slab of cheese, some shriveled mushrooms, a carton of rotting cream, a box of eggs date-stamped two months before, a few squares of nut chocolate with a white bloom on them and a cling-wrapped single portion of some dark wet vegetable, possibly cabbage. Even the butter was off. After they'd washed and disinfected the fridge thoroughly, they'd filled it with food brought down from London: cartons of fresh sauces to go with boxes of fresh pasta, French cheeses and salads and soft fruits and juices. However, meals kept appearing on the doorstep, shyly delivered, usually early in the morning. Only that day, they'd discovered a big Irish stew and a chocolate cake on the porch, together with a note: "Please accept this as a token of our esteem. P.S. No need to return casserole dish and plate immediately. Jim and Nina Barton ('Greenslade,' just past the crossroads, first house on your right)."
"It seems a shame to waste this," said Margaret, slicing herself a piece of the cake, which was quite dry and crumbly with a very sweet soft topping, as if it had been made from a packet. The young people had rejected it. They were extraordinarily fussy about food.
"Why do people always assume the bereaved are hungry?"
"It's the only way they can think of to be helpful. I must say, it was wonderful not having to cook for everyone this evening."
The entire family had descended for the funeral. Sarah's daughter, Bud, and Robert's son, Guy, the greatest of friends, were out walking and talking in the dark lanes. Robert's daughter, Miranda, who was newly pregnant, had retired to bed. "So sad!" she kept murmuring to herself because Celia would never meet her first great-grandchild now. The teenagers, Margaret's Theo and Evie, were in an upstairs bedroom with Sarah's son, Spud, who preferred their company though he was almost thirty now. There was a crash from overhead, as if a piece of furniture had been overturned, followed by barking and whining from Celia's old dog, Oscar, who was alarmed but excited by the glut of company and still searching for her.
"So good she could stay in her own home till the end," said Sarah, very positively.
Margaret nodded. "With all her marbles."
"Fit as a flea."
"Apart from the knees and the eyes."
"She was really really lucky!"
"So were we."
Sarah started sobbing. "Where is she?" she asked, like a frightened child.
Margaret shook her head, unable to speak.
"She's still in us," said Sarah, making an effort. "And our children. And she'll be in our children's children, too — if there's any world left for them by then." She forced a smile. "She's in Miranda's baby. Suddenly, that makes sense. That's true immortality."
"Oh, far more than any books!"
But the reality was that outside a small circle of people their deaths would pass unnoticed. Their only fame would be as a footnote to their mother's: "Celia Bayley is survived by a son and two daughters."
Life had become extraordinarily dramatic. Thick bundles of letters from strangers arrived every day. The telephone rang constantly with requests and inquiries. Journalists turned up at the door, unannounced, with camera crews. Only the day before, Robert had given an interview to a local television station, and nobody watching his assured performance could have guessed that he hadn't read a single one of his mother's books. But it upset them, nevertheless, when people outside the family wrote about her with such authority. What did they know?
The kitchen door opened and Margaret's husband, Charles, came in. "Ah, cake!" he commented, sounding as if he was trying to make a joke but managing merely to convey a kind of awkward disapproval.
"I only had a bit," protested Margaret, instantly on the defensive.
Excerpted from The Affair by Alicia Clifford. Copyright © 2012 Alicia Clifford. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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