Today's Reading

But Evie shook her head. 'No chance. I couldn't play the part. Nor could you. And it's not fair on her or Charlie. Especially Charlie. I like the sound of Charlie.'

Charlie, like his mother, prefers London. He is happily settled there now in the family house in Kensington, running the wine import business. He was delighted when Evie and his father got married; not long married himself, a proud father, and generously disposed for everyone to be happy. He and Evie quickly adopted an easy, light- hearted relationship. Charlie would roar with laughter at her jokes and his wife would smile tightly, baffled by Evie's casual approach to life and her indifference to people's opinions or criticism.

'I can't help wondering,' Evie said to Tommy, 'whether Angela is quite the right girl for your Charlie.'

'Oh, Ange is OK,' he said tolerantly. 'Very sensible. She's an asset where the business is concerned. Very switched on and efficient.'

Evie made a face. 'He could get a PA with those qualifications.'

He looked thoughtful. 'Funny chap, Charlie. He's got his head well and truly screwed on but he's not always quite as confident as he looks. His mother had great influence over him. Marianne thoroughly approved of Ange—we've known the family for years—and I think he's simply grown used to her. He could see that she'd be good at making sure everything runs smoothly.'

And so she did. Like Marianne before her, she knew the right people, made the right kind of friends and was good with the clients, though she lacked Marianne's generosity. Nevertheless, the business continued to flourish, and Charlie's prospects with it.

So what did I know? Evie asks herself, closing the front door behind her and crossing the road. Tommy was right and it was none of my business.

But it is her business now: Tommy has made it her business. Charlie has inherited the house in Kensington, the wine import business, the assets; but the Merchant's House has been left to Evie. Charlie is puzzled but courteous; Ange is furious.

'Rather unusual,' she said to Evie after the will was read. 'The house has been in the family for generations.'

'Evie is family,' Charlie reminded her gently, and Ange flushed that unbecoming red that flows up from her chest and over her face each time she is annoyed.

'You know what I mean,' she muttered.

Evie wanted to agree but was obliged to remain silent: she was as shocked as Ange. It never occurred to her that Tommy would do such a thing.

Clutching the bowl, Evie descends the steep flights of steps that lead down to the shared paved area behind the boathouse and lets herself in. River-light flows across the polished wood floor, trembles on the white walls, washes up into the high-raftered roof of this huge living space. She sets the bowl down beside the Belfast sink, crosses the length of the room to the big glass doors, which open on to the wooden balcony, and steps outside. If she turns her back on the river and looks up she can see the Merchant's House standing in its elegant row across the road high above her. All around her are other converted boathouses, jumbled amongst fishermen's cottages built below the level of the road, backed into the rock and huddled above the river. Some have ports with heavy wooden doors that can be closed against the tide and where small boats can be kept. A few owners have built tall stone columns into which lifts have been installed to avoid climbing steep steps to the road above. Some of the cottages have tiny courtyards surrounded by high stone walls. These walls are bright with flowers: valerian, feverfew, mallows, lace-cap hydrangeas spring from the crevices in these stones and flourish in the salty air.

If she looks across the river Evie can see Kingswear with its tier upon tier of houses stacked on the hill above the marina: narrow terraced houses the colour of ice cream: mint, vanilla, bubblegum, coffee.

The sun has slipped away behind the hill and the balcony is in shadow. This is when she misses Tommy most: early evening when work is done and it's time to light the candles, to prepare supper, to talk over the events of the day. In the winter she will pull down the pretty hand-painted blinds over the windows that face northwards upriver and south to the sea, and close the curtains across the big glass doors. She will go through the connecting door from the utility room behind the kitchen, into the small adjoining fisherman's cottage where she works and where there is the den, cosy and warm, sheltered from winter storms and the high spring tides that race in from the sea. The bedrooms are here, too: not very big but quite adequate. The contrast is extraordinary: the higgledy- piggledy cottage with twists and turns and unexpected steps, and the huge light-filled space that feels like an extension of the river.

Evie opens a cupboard and finds a vase for the sweet peas; she empties the loganberries into a smaller dish. The bowl must be returned to the Merchant's House. She is always most particular that there should never be any muddle.

'It's yours too, now,' Tommy would say after they were married, but she'd shake her head.

'It belongs to your family, not to me.'

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