Cover image for Easy silence
Easy silence
Huth, Angela, 1938-
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2001.

Physical Description:
341 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"A Thomas Dunne Book"
Format :


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The Handles have one of those quiet, suburban marriages that has ticked along for decades without anything very momentous happening.William, a distinguished violinist and leader of the Elmtree Quartet, and Grace, a modest watercolorist, enjoy a serene domestic routine where easy silence, an acceptance of each other's ways, is the norm. The two spend each day in their respective corners of the house-William upstairs practicing, and Grace downstairs working on her latest wildflower illustration-and they even take careful steps to prevent a chance encounter.For what do people who've been married that long say when they meet on the stairs?But just as quickly as their routine emerged, it is yanked away by the winds of change. When the long-serving viola player resigns from William's quartet, the Elmtree hires Bonnie, a brilliant young player with perfect dimples and an ample bosom.In no time, William is smitten.Meanwhile, Grace's days have become enlivened by visits from Lucien, a troubled young man who lives down the street with the mother he loathes.Though his presence unnerves her, he provides her days with a bittersweet frisson, and before long Grace is captivated.As William and Grace secretly find their hearts tugged in opposite directions, the once cozy couple moves closer to confrontation. But with the introduction of sudden menace, the story takes a darker turn-until real-life horror explodes and a murderous twists sends their world spinning.From the acclaimed author of Land Girls and Wives of the Fisherman comes an elegant, if shocking, dissection of a middle-class marriage.In Easy Silence, Huth combines remarkable insight with biting wit to create a delicious black comedy. AUTHORBIO: Angela Huth is the author of many novels including the critically acclaimed Land Girls, also a major motion picture.She lives in Oxford, England.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

William Handle is losing his grip. Although his long-standing marriage is as finely tuned as the violin he plays with London's Elmtree String Quartet, once a vivacious young woman joins the ensemble . . . zing go the strings of his heart! Obsessively infatuated, William fantasizes about a future with Bonnie and without his wife. What to do? Divorce? No. Murder? Yes. The unsuspecting Grace Handle, meanwhile, has problems of her own. An unlikely friendship with Lucien, an emotionally high-strung, alienated Gen-Xer, that initially brought a vicarious thrill to her ho-hum existence begins to take on an ironically sinister aspect when his behavior grows increasingly volatile. As William plots and Grace frets, Huth paints a droll portrait of human frailties and foibles, habits and insecurities. Her dark comedy of middle-class British manners is a fast-paced romp, filled with quirky characters and spot-on details. Rarely has the institution of marriage been captured so keenly, yet for all her jibes, Huth's portrayal of underlying marital harmony strikes just the right chord. --Carol Haggas

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Suddenly William was able to contemplate the fact quite calmly: he would have to murder his wife." At the start of this unusual portrait of a British marriage, middle-aged William Handle is far from entertaining such wicked thoughts. For years, he has been happily married to Grace. Husband and wife each have their own satisfying occupationsÄWilliam is the principal violinist of the Elmtree Quartet, and Grace is a painterÄand they live comfortably in a suburb west of London. But then a new viola playerÄthe attractive Bonnie MorseÄjoins William's previously all-male quartet, and William loses his head. Meanwhile, Grace is getting more and more caught up in the life of the Handles' unbalanced but charismatic young neighbor, Lucien, who visits in the mornings and rants about his domineering mother. As William's plans to rid himself of his wife progress, farce shifts into black comedy. But after a split that includes Lucien's betrayal, Grace and William reunite with a simplicity that belies the homicidal frisson previously in the air. Huth (Land Girls) shows how human destiny is shaped amid the tinkling of teacups, in this very British tale. Although Grace and William are not entirely rounded characters, they are engaging as something more than symbols of middle-class married malaise. Easy to read, but brittle around the edges, the novel gives a cool account of thwarted passion. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

William Handle, a violinist with a prominent string quartet, and his wife, Grace, an accomplished artist of botanical books for children, have the kind of comfortable, easy relationship that comes with a long, happy marriage. Then the disturbed but engaging young Lucien comes into Grace's life and into William's comes Bonnie, the quartet's new viola player. Grace is both attracted and repulsed by Lucien's mood swings and his strange insinuation into her routine (he pops in daily for tea), while William is besotted by Bonnie's youth and attention. He resolves to murder his "dear Grace" so that he and Bonnie can play duets forever. Fortunately, William's attempts at murder are bungled, and his efforts to woo the fair Bonnie are mistaken for musical camaraderie. He recognizes the folly of his fantasy just in time. Not only is Grace spared death, but she is also mercifully absent when Lucien goes over the edge. Huth (Land Girls) has a marvelously deft hand at character portrayal and skillfully sustains the reader's sympathy for the human condition. Light reading to be sure, but carefully crafted and thoroughly entertaining. Recommended. Susan Clifford Braun, Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Easy Silence 1 'Where, tonight?' 'Slough.' 'Slough?' 'Slough.' 'I wouldn't have thought--' 'Some industrial estate. Some hall. Rather good acoustics, as far as I remember.' 'Slough! I have to say I can't imagine there'd be a very good turn out in--' 'You're wrong there, my Ace.' 'So you'll be back late, you poor thing.' 'Not very late.' 'Slough ... Mozart?' William Handle glanced at his wife to assess the precise measure of interest in this question. He knew so well the waterline in her blue eyes that divided politeness from real interest. Tonight, weary after a long day whose tribulations she had relived for him over tea, he judged mere politeness fired the question. She didn't really want to know the answer, she certainly hadn't the heart to be subjected to details of the programme. William spared her. 'Mozart, yes,' is all he said. 'Sure you've got the right - ' William tapped his music case. 'Checked three times.' Since the occasion, five years ago, he had found he'd taken Bach instead ofBrahms to a big concert in Manchester, he had been almost neurotic in his checking. 'Well, then.' Grace patted his shoulder. She registered that the stiff stuff of his mackintosh had actually cracked. Tomorrow, at some appropriate time, she would suggest he invested in a new one. To say anything now would be foolish. William no longer suffered the acute pre-concert nerves of his youth but he liked to start thinking about the music when he had finished his second cup of tea. Any deflection ruffled him, though Grace was the only one privileged to observe such disturbance. She handed him his violin case, opened the front door. The small car parked in the driveway was pearled with rain. 'Oh dear, what a bother, I won't be able to hurry.' William was always nervous about his lack of driving skill, especially in the dark and rain. 'I'd hoped it might have stopped.' 'It's sure to have cleared by the time you come home,' said Grace, who believed in encouragement. 'Goodnight, my Ace.' William kissed his wife on the cheek. When his hands were free he liked to cup her chin and kiss her lightly on the mouth - something he discovered she enjoyed when they were courting and had become a habit between them. But lumbered with both instrument and music case, he was only able to give her what they jokingly called a pre-concert kiss. The cases barged into Grace's thighs. She backed away, smiling. 'Drive carefully.' 'I will.' All the way to Slough William had trouble with the windscreen wipers. They went either too fast or too slow. In neither mode (a modern word William sometimes reluctantly found he was obliged to use) did they perform their function properly. The glass remained smeary, a screen of moving abstract patterns that flowed from coloured neon signs and streetlights. William was forced to drive slowly, trying to decide just how near or far he was from the exploding headlights coming towards him. He feared he would be late. He wanted to look at his watch, but Grace had drummed intohim so often that a driver should never take his eyes from the road. In her absence, he felt it more crucial than ever to heed her advice, always sound. So he gave up the thought of checking the time. But tonight something more serious than the rain troubled William. Through the squiggle of disconcerting lights he tried to remember what it was. At a red light (handbrake diligently on), it came to him: Andrew. Andrew Fulbright. Andrew, his dearest friend, his friend of almost thirty years, best viola in any quartet in the country ... gone. Gone! The fact was still incredible. William could not bring himself to believe that when he reached the dressing-room tonight Andrew would not be wittering on about the threadbare state of his white tie (a mean man, in small respects, he would never deign to replace it), or the banality of the programme if it did not include some difficult modern composer, or the warmth of the lager provided for after-concert refreshment, or the inconsideration of British Rail for those requiring to travel home late. Dear Andrew! William and the other two members of the Elmtree Quartet were so familiar with his grumbles that their sympathetic responses had become automatic - sometimes in harmony, sometimes solo, with as little thought as was necessary in playing the opening bars of Mozart's K458. But they were enough to console Andrew - a man quick to recover from his own imagined misfortunes if ever there was one. Within moments he would be laughing, tuning up long before reaching the platform with a keenness, a precision, that would make the others smile. And then, no matter how many times Andrew had played a piece, he never resorted to automatic pilot. He always gave his soul to the music in a way that the others - so often tired, bored, irritated - failed to do with such constancy. Now Andrew was gone for ever. This would be the first concert without him. The car behind William hooted four times in the manner of the opening bar of Beethoven's Fifth. This was a signal William could read. Rather than feel annoyed by the other driver's impatience, he was soothed. It could mean there was another musician on the roadto the concert. William obligingly let in the clutch, observing that by now the green light had changed to amber. But he made a dash for it. Didn't want to annoy the chap behind any further. Grace said the slightest hesitation could inspire road-rage these days. William could not imagine what he would do should some angry driver come banging on the window set for a fight. Grace said he should always lock the car from the inside if there was any suspicion of things turning nasty. But William had never encountered any such suspicion, and in the meantime had forgotten how to lock the doors from the inside. In this first-ever possible nasty moment, aware of his vulnerability, he slammed down the accelerator and leapt forward through a glow of red, causing traffic from each side of him to start up a cacophony of hooting, which put him vaguely in mind of Gershwin's tuned taxi horns in An American in Paris. A short while later, his calm returned, his hands loosened on the steering wheel, his thoughts returned to Andrew. The sad fact was that Andrew had been forced to resign untimely from the Elmtree because of 'wife troubles'. He had confessed to William that after many difficult years things had come to a head. It was either bloody concerts, Zara had said, or her. He could take his choice. Zara, addicted to the plural, had screamed at him; music, music, music - she was fed up to here with twenty years of music. So he could either go, go, go, or give in his notice, pronto, and stay, stay, stay. Andrew, being an honourable man and remembering his wedding vows, had been forced to choose his wife. He had given his viola to his son and swore never to play again, thus doubling Zara's triumph. Andrew's official reason for leaving the Elmtree was increasing arthritis in his shoulder, exacerbated by playing. William (first violin), Rufus (second violin) and Grant (cello) had never heard him complain of this, but did not press him. They set about auditioning replacements. William remembered desolate weeks of listening to young hopefuls - very eager young hopefuls - scraping through their favourite Brahms sonata. Not one of them would bring to the Elmtree players the very particular quality of Andrew,but a choice had finally to be made. William agreed with the other two that a girl, called Bonnie, would be the best choice - though each in their hearts would have preferred another man. Among so many applicants William could remember little of Bonnie except that she had a powerful fringe and a memorable mouth. She had played part of the Walton viola concerto for her audition, which had cheered Andrew: he said here was a girl who liked a challenge. As the others wanted Andrew to be happy with his replacement and her playing was, indeed, original, if a little erratic, the choice was more or less made for them. Besides, time was running out. Zara was looking at houses in Yorkshire, to ensure Andrew was unable to go back on his word, and they were all fed up with auditions. They disliked their power to stifle a dozen hopes a day. There had been many rehearsals with Bonnie before the first concert together. William had concentrated on erasing the singular and beautiful sound of Andrew's viola from his mind. Bonnie, of the bobbing fringe, did her best. She was quiet, accommodating, quick to respond to any suggestion for improvement. William tried to convince himself that in time he would become used to the strangeness of her presence. For the moment he could see her only as a replacement rather than a being. Certainly she was a good - an especially good musician, they realised after a week or so of playing with her. But as a young girl of flesh and blood; for William, she did not yet exist. This evening was to be Bonnie's first concert as a member of the Elmtree String Quartet. That was what was troubling William. That was what was making driving in the dark and rain harder than usual. How on earth would it be? Never the same again, of course. Four old friends, so used to each others' idiosyncrasies, so loyal in their disguising of each others' frailties ... And now they must accommodate a new player about whose attitude, life, tone, mastery of a score they knew nothing. Besides which, this new member, this replacement, was not a man. Ashamed of his secret dread and prejudice, William quickly told himself that it was only fair to give this Bonnie girl - young woman, whatever she was - achance. Help her. She must be feeling pretty nervous. She would need all the support he, Grant and Rufus knew they must give. The whole prospect was nothing less than a nightmare. By the time William drew up at the hall on the industrial estate in Slough, the rain was so hard the windscreen wipers collapsed altogether, but Bonnie's surname had come to him. Morse. Bonnie Morse. Hardly a name to distinguish a programme. He made a mental note to describe every inch of the new viola's appearance, and performance, next morning to Grace. He would end up by trumpeting her name in the funny voice he used to disguise disapproval, and which always made Grace laugh. Bonnie Morse, indeed! How they would agree. As William ran through the rain towards the lighted door, violin case and music case banging at his clattery mackintosh, he realised that he had not given a moment's thought to the Mozart he was about to play, but consoled himself with the thought that the pieces were so well known to him this would not, for once, impair his performance. More disturbing was the fact that there was a girl arriving ahead of him. Back shiny as a seal in the rain. Viola case tucked professionally under her arm. Bonnie Morse herself. It was a bad start. He had promised the others he'd be there first. Greet this Bonnie. Welcome her. Assure her. As leader of the players, do his stuff. William pushed himself into a run. He pictured her blundering along corridors looking for the room that the managers of the cat food firm, sponsoring the concert, liked to call the Green Room. It was clear already the choice of the new viola was a mistake. There was bound to be trouble. William felt the ache of a bereaved man as he thought of the absent Andrew. Fired by guilt and melancholy, he attempted to jump a puddle for further speed. He clambered into the air with the heaviness of an insect drowsed by late summer. He slipped on landing. Fell. Eventually, rose again. Cursed Bonnie Morse. In his final wet sprint to the door he tried to calm himself with thoughts of Mozart, but did not succeed. The next morning at breakfast it was Grace who brought up the subject that had occupied William's mind during a long and sleepless night. 'So: how did it go with the new viola?' 'Fine. All right. She's not bad. She's rather good.' 'She?' 'Didn't I tell you, my Ace?' After so many years he was no longer in the habit of passing on the Elmtree's news, usually, of no great interest, to his wife. 'The new viola's a she.' Grace scraped her toast back and forth, spreading the butter till it was an almost calorie-free veil. 'You didn't, no.' 'Well, it didn't seem of much importance. All those auditions, no one particularly outstanding. The candidates were confused in my mind. I suppose I forgot to tell you the one we chose in the end was this young woman, Bonnie Morse.' 'Bonnie Morse?' 'Quite.' They exchanged a smile at the name, as William had foreseen. 'Young woman?' 'As yet I haven't determined whether she's a young woman or an older girl. It's not the sort of thing you can ask. She's got a girlish fringe but womanly hips, I'd say.' Grace now turned her concentration to thinning out the marmalade in the same way as the butter. 'How could you tell about her hips if she was sitting down playing all evening?' 'I was behind her when she took a bow at the end.' 'Quite,' said Grace after a while. 'When's your next date?' William shifted almost imperceptibly in the seat of his chair and picked up The Times to signal the end of the exchange. 'Northampton, Thursday.' 'Perhaps I should come with you, judge for myself.' 'Not worth it. Wait till she's settled in and we're playing somewhere nearer.' 'It's only an hour's journey.' 'Britten the whole of the second half. You know how allergic you are to Britten.' 'True,' said Grace. 'All right, I won't come. It was just an idea.' They fell back into the easy silence that was their habit at breakfast. Tea, before William set off for a concert, was the time they liked to exchange news, confirm plans, swap some of the random thoughts that had come to them during the day. It was also the time, especially when the evenings were drawing in, they sometimes fell into a little routine of reminiscence, which reaffirmed, rather than more obvious declarations, their long-married love, and reassured. Breakfast finished, William put his plate and mug on top of the dishwasher, his single contribution to domestic necessity, and went upstairs. Grace began to hurry with the rest of the clearing, for timing, in the strict routine of daily life that she and William had thrived on for years, was essential. Working daily under the same roof, they decided years ago, would best be accomplished if each of them was able to believe in the illusion that they were alone in the house. Thus skilful avoiding of the other was put into practice - difficult at first, some slip-ups encountered. By now, a habit no longer thought about. They had taken practical steps to ensure there was no danger of a chance meeting in the morning - a kettle and coffee had been installed in William's room, for instance, so that he would not have to come down to the kitchen for his elevenses. This guaranteed they would not have to pass on the stairs, something they both secretly preferred to avoid. For what, as Grace once asked, do people who've been married for a long time say when they meet on the stairs? Their desire to avoid any such meeting was mutual, though unspoken. Neither wished to risk the possibility, knowing well that a preoccupied smile or the absence of a jaunty word are the sort of things that can lead to misunderstandings in the happiest of marriages. Grace waited till she heard her husband come out of the bathroom and climb the stairs to the third floor of the house, to his sound-proofed room. There, she imagined, he would stand at thewindow tuning his violin, looking out of the window at the severe patch of garden with its orderly standard roses and dark privet hedges, and lose himself in Brahms, or whoever, for the next couple of hours before getting down to the tasks at his desk. If by chance his thoughts turned to her, Grace imagined, then he would see her equally engrossed in her work in the downstairs study, spectacles slipping down her nose, tiny sable brush hovering over the paper as she depicted every vein in a buttercup petal. Her A Child's Guide to Flowers had engrossed her for the last five years and the signs were it would take another five to complete. Grace appreciated that William still showed interest in her progress from time to time, and loyally deflected questions from friends who enquired about his wife's date of publication. What William did not know was that had he imagined his wife safely at her flowers, the picture would have been inaccurate. Until at least mid-morning, these days, she was no longer there. Since Lucien had started visiting, her work routine had been destroyed. And what William also did not know was that some mornings, when William took five minutes longer than usual to read the paper, Grace became rigid with concealed tension. For if Lucien had walked unannounced through the kitchen door, which was his way, and William had still been at breakfast - well, Grace dared not imagine what might happen. So occasionally, anxiously watching the clock, she was obliged to chivvy her husband in the gentlest possible way. 'My goodness, it's almost half past nine,' she would observe, taking his plate to the sink to relieve him of this duty. 'My goodness, so it is.' 'You'd better get on, hadn't you?' 'So I had, my Ace. How right you are. The Mendelssohn.' And humming the first few bars, he would be on his way. William never seemed to notice the urgency beneath her mild suggestions, and the small element of danger gave an edge to breakfast which Grace rather enjoyed. The morning after Bonnie Morse's first concert with the ElmtreeString Quartet there was no reason for Grace to urge William to hurry. But he finished more quickly than usual, eager to be alone in the safety of his sound-proofed room. Once there, instead of taking out his violin and drowning himself in the music he loved, as Grace imagined, he slumped into the low armchair, legs slung apart in a matter he would not have considered adopting downstairs. He picked up a pencil and began to tap his teeth in time to a passage from the Siciliana in the Mozart D minor they had played last night. Sometimes he hummed a little, but the tuneless noise depressed him - so far, it was, from the pure sound in his head. In all honesty, he reflected, last night had been much better than he had expected. Really rather good. A full house and lively applause. Bonnie Morse, he had to admit, had made no mistakes. She had been a little hesitant, perhaps, and a fraction late with one cue - but damn it, the girl must have been terribly nervous, first time playing with such a well-known quartet. She did very well, as Grant and Rufus acknowledged in a brief meeting in the car park, after she had driven off in a small red car, waving cheerfully. Of course, he'd have to coach her a bit, introduce her to the Elmtree's special ways. But that should be no problem. He sensed she would be quick to learn. A bright girl: no budding genius, but a nice touch, an infectious energy which - and here William was reluctant to admit it even to himself - was something the Elmtree String Quartet, after so many years, could well benefit from if it was to keep its impeccable reputation intact. A worry William tried hard to ignore was in fact not the Elmtree's reputation but its future. He was well aware a quartet with its original members could not continue for ever. They had had a pretty good innings. William often remembered the day he and Rufus, after a village cricket match, sat in the shade of an elm tree with their pints of bitter, and made their plans. At that time Rufus was a keen cricket player - in the village team, he had something of a reputation as a fast bowler. He liked the whole business of English afternoon cricket - the village green, the whites, theteas, the camaraderie. Most of all he liked the fact that his frail wife Iris, slung low in a deckchair, brim of straw hat cutting across her fine cheekbones, cheered him on so enthusiastically. Often he invited William to matches. It was on a day Iris had not felt up to joining them that the two of them had lingered into the late afternoon, and come up with the idea of their own quartet. Rufus already knew of Andrew, who eagerly joined them. It was only a matter of weeks before, through musical friends, they found Grant. There had been no change of cast, since then, till now. Shortly after they had established themselves, played a few lowly concerts, Rufus strained his shoulder by some overconfident bowling. It hurt to play thereafter, so he gave up cricket, declared he had no regrets. Instead, he took up the gentler occupation of Saving the Skylark. A keen ornithologist as a boy, he was horrified by the decline of so many British birds - particularly the skylark, for he was a Shelley man as well as a musical one. Rufus, William knew, was a better judge of a musician than himself. He had an acute ear. He also knew instinctively how to match players - how well one would balance another. It was he who had assured William - initially reluctant for the wrong reasons - of Bonnie's potential for fitting in with the tone of the other three. It was Rufus, at the audition, who had urged William not only to cast aside his prejudice, but also to think that a change of direction (i.e. the inclusion of a girl) would give the Elmtree the boost it might one day need. At the end of the Slough concert, as the players left the stage, William had touched Rufus on the arm and whispered that he had been right as usual. Rufus had merely given his old friend a curt nod: he was not one who found appreciation easy to accept. After the concert the members of the Quartet had lingered in the breeze-block Green Room, sipping at glasses of third-rate wine provided. by the cat food sponsors. Although they were eager to be off as soon as possible, in appreciation of Bonnie's commendable first performance they stayed a while. It was during this half-hour gathering that Bonnie Morse took her first tentative - and rathercharming - steps in getting to know her fellow players. First she admired Grant's cello. She asked permission to run a finger over its strings, which she was readily granted. Then she and Grant discovered that, despite the ten-year difference in their ages, they had shared a music master whom they both admired. William also heard them conversing about a subject that he himself had no interest in at all - foreign food. Grant was an excellent cook, though how he managed in the chaos of his kitchen was hard to imagine. William saw Bonnie revealing a peculiar interest in Grant's descriptions of variations on chilli con carne, and felt that he, as leader of the Quartet, should have his fair share of her attention before it was time to go. When he gave her a light tap on the elbow she willingly broke away from Grant, and cast all her attention on William. Her conversation with him was one that he had had with more people than he could remember over the years but which, the evening in the Green Room on the Slough Trading Estate, was endowed with a curious freshness. 'And you, Mr Handle: are you by any chance a descendant ... ?' When confronted with this familiar question, William never liked to disappoint. He would therefore give a small nod that could be taken for acquiescence, though if pressed further he would of course explain the discrepancy in the spelling. For some reason, faced with Bonnie's intrigued eyes, he launched without hesitation into the truth of the matter. 'I'm afraid ... we're spelt differently. No relation.' 'Still, it must be an asset as a musician to be called any kind of Handle.' Bonnie smiled understandingly, showing no sign of disappointment. That was gratifying. William was used to people's interest flagging as soon as they learned he was an le rather than an el. 'Like contemporary writers who happen to be called Shakespeare,' Bonnie went on. 'I know there's at least one good modern novelist called Shakespeare. Bet that's not a disadvantage.' William agreed with a silent nod. He was not acquainted with the writer Bonnie referred to, but found himself making a note that the next time he was in a bookshop ... Bonnie was leaving by then, tucking her viola case under her arm in a way none of the other players ever did. She smiled round at all of them, thanking them for being so kind - she'd been pretty terrified, she said, but they'd given her courage. Her smile was engaging, pushing dimples into her cheeks. But William found himself more in awe of her mouth in repose, the top lip tipped up in the kind of delicate arc that would have bewitched Michelangelo. All the way home, struggling once more against the rain, William's thoughts had been divided between the mouth, and the fringe that all but obscured the eyes. He imagined that one day - trying to read an obscure score, perhaps - she would flick it back, and a pair of eyes to match the mouth would be revealed. It was past ten o'clock. William stirred. He had intended to get down to the business of deciding on the Manchester Christmas programme before he started to practise. Instead, his mind turned to the Northampton recital on Friday. Bonnie had said she was quite happy with the proposed programme, but William felt it would only be fair to check her knowledge of the third Britten quartet. It wasn't the easiest piece. He and the others would be prepared to change it for something else - although the programmes had been printed long ago - if she had any doubts. Secure in the knowledge that Grace, bent over her buttercups downstairs, would never know of this break in his routine - a morning telephone call - William pulled from his pocket the number Bonnie had given him the night before. Somewhere in the muddle of his desk was her official letter of acceptance of the job with the Quartet, with her CV, address and number. But in his impatience William could not be bothered to go through the papers. Instead, he studied the figures written in red pencil on the scrap of paper, trying to determine some clue to her character from the boldness of the figures. William let the telephone ring for two minutes. No answer. He returned to his chair, wondering at his faintly restless state. Then he rose again, guilty, and took up his violin. Mercifully, his normal calm returned. He carried on practising till mid-morning, when hemade his coffee, with two spoons of sugar, which Grace would never allow downstairs, before trying to ring Bonnie once more. In the kitchen Grace was taking her usual battering from Lucien. 'She's giving me a lot of grief this week,' he was saying. 'Something's like upset her. Don't ask me what. But is she taking it out on me? Hell she is.' He was referring to his mother, Lobelia Watson, whom Grace had not met - an apparent monster whose general misdeeds and loathsomeness of character Lucien had exhaustively described to Grace since the beginning of their acquaintance some months ago. 'Like, last night. She comes back from her therapist - she's always worse when she's been moaning on to her - and it's like, Lucien do this, Lucien do that, take your wet clothes out of the machine, hang them on the line, whatever. Then it's Lucien you don't understand me. Lucien you don't give a thought to anyone but yourself - how does the bitch know what goes on in my mind? Then she's on about drugs, of course. Every day she's on about drugs. Cuts out little stories from the paper saying some git's OD'd and died, and puts them by my bed like when I was a child she put little jugs of daisies. Bloody mad.' He picked up his mug of coffee in both hands, looked at Grace. Then quickly his eyes fidgeted away over things nearby - his fingernails, an ashtray on the table, a pencil. Grace had rarely seen him look out of the window or into any distance. It was as if he could not face horizons. He needed to be near the things he regarded. 'You know what I think. I've said it so many times. You should leave home. Soon as possible.' 'How bloody can I?' 'Get a job.' 'How bloody can I? What can I do? Who'd have me?' 'Don't be daft, Lucien. You could do anything you put your mind to.' 'She'd go off her trolley if I left.' 'You'd have to risk that. Most people are quite relieved when their children go. Not many mothers would be happy still to have a twenty-four-year-old son living at home.' 'You don't know my mother. I'm all she's got. All she's got to fucking live for, she says - well, she doesn't put it quite like that, does she? I can't do a thing right in her eyes, but if I left she'd never forgive me. I said to her once, Mum, I said, what happens when I meet some girl I want for more than a night? Want to set up with her? - What did she do? Bugger off and drink a bottle of vodka. Who had to clear up the mess next morning? I mean.' Grace had heard all this, with variations, many times before. Lucien's way was to start with a blast of angry complaint shot with questions to which he did not want to hear an honest answer. Usually, his morning fury had dwindled after half an hour. The second half of his visit he switched into the young man Grace had grown strangely fond of - still uneasy and inelegant, but lively, interested, curious, amazed by things that seemed to Grace quite ordinary. 'William and I missed Jack dreadfully when he first left,' she said, which was not entirely true, 'but we also felt quite pleased. Free.' 'Yes, well, your Jack. He's a different matter, daresay.' Grace could see he was simmering down. They sat in silence for a while - a silence as easy, though different, as it was with William. Across this table from the unspeaking William she was always aware of the mutual charge of love and affection, garnered from so many years of happy marriage, that does not need words, queries, analysis. She and William both recognised, and were able to indulge in, the lazy silence of mutual knowing, the unspoken agreement that no effort had constantly to be made. This was the reward for altruistic years together. With Lucien, the silence bore no such mutual recognition. For his part, thoughts were totally of himself. Preoccupation with this 'limited subject', as William, who found his wife's young friend hard to tolerate, once called it, was very fashionable. Grace could see that, and was both appalled andintrigued by such egotism. In the many hours that she and Lucien had spent at the kitchen table (hours lost to her work on the book) there was no denying that Grace, too, was compelled to think only of her visitor. He knew this. He could see questions struggling in her eyes. Her concern was a bolster, nicely doubling his sense of self-interest. 'I suppose you're wondering about me.' This he observed approximately once a week. 'I am, rather.' 'You keep wondering. Come up with any good solutions and I won't half be pleased.' He gave her a quick smile. A smile that lighted his grey-skinned face beguilingly. Crinkle of dark eyes and unshaven jowls, a flash of incredibly white teeth, despite a regular boast that he never brushed them because of his mother's nagging. (Jack, who had brushed his teeth regularly since he was a child, was now the owner of a very unpleasant smile: dun-coloured teeth fringing over-long gums, inherited from neither of his parents.) 'So how's the book going?' Lucien asked eventually. 'Buttercup a day?' 'Afraid not. It doesn't work quite like that.' 'No, well. You promised I could see some of your paintings. I'm a Damien Hurst man myself, as you know. But I'm nothing if not adaptable. Dead cows one day, buttercups the next. Cows ... buttercups - some link there, surely?' He grinned. At moments like this Grace scorned herself for ever thinking there was something faintly sinister about Lucien. He had the charm of a rather silly schoolboy. A warmth and friendliness that had never been part of Jack's character. And Jack had never shown the slightest interest in his mother's work. Grace smiled. 'I'll show them to you one day,' she said. 'You promised that I could meet your mother.' 'You can, any time.' This was always his reply, but a meeting was never arranged. Grace pressed him. 'When?' 'I'll fix it. She's in most afternoons after her therapy session. Comes back glowing. From spending so much money, daresay.' 'I'm always free. Any afternoon.' 'Music to my ears.' Lucien grinned again. 'Most people I know are always busy.' 'There does seem to be a lot of competitive busyness about these days, yes.' 'That's right.' Sometimes agreement spurred Lucien to exotic observations that Grace found so singular she would pass them on to William (who was less able to see their interest). But today he swerved quickly back to his mother. 'If I was my mum I'd be bored stiff wittering on every afternoon about myself, thirty-five quid an hour.' 'Some people feel it does them good, talking to a professional.' 'She's one of them. One of her illusions.' 'Everyone needs their illusions.' 'Anyhow, it's not doing any good.' 'It takes time.' Lucien poured himself more coffee, frowning. Grace sensed he was uncommonly restless today. 'What does your old man do all morning, shut up in his room?' 'Practises. Arranges concert programmes.' 'Maybe I'd better come to one of his gigs,' he said. 'Wouldn't be very up your street, I don't think.' 'How d'you know? OK, I'm into heavy metal, but I can also dig Beethoven. Honest. Like I told you, I'm adaptable.' There was a long silence while Grace imagined the odd couple of Lucien and herself taking seats at one of the Elmtree concerts. 'You don't seem too keen,' Lucien said at last. 'I was just weighing up how much you'd enjoy it.' 'I'd enjoy it. It'd be spooky, great. But if I didn't, we could always walk out.' 'We couldn't,' said Grace sternly. Lucien took her hand, grinning again. 'Course we couldn't.Calm down, Mrs H. I was just winding you up. I'd sit there good as anything. Not cause you any hassle, honest.' Grace shrugged. She tried to withdraw her hand but Lucien would not let it go. 'Well, I'll see what's coming up. Perhaps the next Beethoven.' 'I can take Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, no problem. Anything but Strauss.' He registered Grace's surprise at the list of composers with whom she had not suspected he was familiar. 'Don't look so shocked. We learnt something called Musical Appreciation for a bit at school. I liked those lessons. I remember once snorting a line of coke during Fingal's Cave. Improved it no end.' 'I'm not shocked,' said Grace, tightly. Lucien let go of her hand. 'Of course not. You're never shocked, Mrs H, Gracie. That's what I like about you. I'm your piece of rough and I reckon that's what you like about me. You could teach my mum a thing or two, you could. But I won't put you to the trouble. Probably wouldn't work.' He stood up. 'I'm going to go now before you have to ask. Back tomorrow. Thanks for the coffee.' He put his mug on top of the dishwasher, the single gesture he had in common with William, and left with a speed that suggested he wanted to get away fast, he had urgent business to attend. As always, when he had gone, Grace felt a gust of relief - danger over - but also, at the thought of his return tomorrow, an unnerving sense of elation. Their strange friendship provided a semi-secret. Lucien's visits caused a stir in the plain air of the house for which Grace felt grateful. The excitement of his curious appearances was her one infidelity, as she laughingly admitted to William, who had met Lucien only briefly, so was not able to share the view that the youth was worthy of much consideration. To William, Lucien was merely an uncouth young thug who took up far too much of Grace's time baring his tedious soul. He would have preferred Lucien to be banned from the house. Just as keenly, Grace was determined that he never should be. To begin with, the differences of opinion between husband and wife, concerning Lucien, were obfuscated in a web of the merest suggestion as to how each one felt. But of late even thesenervous pretences at argument had petered out. Now, Lucien had become a subject never to be discussed and - for William - a man never to be run into. Hence the need for careful timing, and the frisson that provided. The neighbours in Artisan Road had somehow discovered, many years ago, the emptiness of Grace's afternoons and had 'roped her in' for help of various kinds. She was an active member of Neighbourhood Watch, she accepted invitations to wine and cheese parties whose purpose was to discuss Doing Something about a zebra crossing at the junction of Artisan and Hogarth Roads, and for five years running she had organised a group of local carol singers. As the only pianist among them, every November she arranged rehearsals in the Handle dining room, where the singers could secretly try out a descant. As a result Grace was frequently congratulated on the quality of the singers: their high standard earned them an unusual amount of mince pies, and considerable sums for whichever charity they were raising money. Raising money for those less fortunate, in fact, was an occupation that Grace found more rewarding than most, provided it was on the simple level of going round with a collecting box. She liked a good excuse to wander up neighbouring drives, pass an eye over the disparate tastes of privet, marigolds, or aubretia surfing over a clump of stones. She found it intriguing to glance through front windows, guess at the lives from the small clue of curtain or ornament. She loved the moment of a front door opening (not a very frequent occurrence, afternoons) and the brief exposure to the different smells of halls: the stands of hunched coats, the glimmer of mirror on dark old walls (redecorating the hall was low on the list of priorities in Artisan Road), the flash of patterned stair carpet, the flutter of High Street candelabras. - Grace's eagerness for this particular form of good work was quickly detected among local charitable organisers, and for years she had been amply furnished with opportunities to walk her way round the neighbourhoodarmed with a tin, or envelopes that must be first delivered and later collected. It was on a November afternoon almost a year ago while on duty on behalf of the sufferers of muscular dystrophy (an annual appeal designed to catch donors before the Christmas shopping season) that she first met Lucien. The Firs, a few houses down the street from the Handles, was so frequently unoccupied during the afternoons that Grace had almost given up ringing the bell. She knew nothing of its owners except that they were called Watson and had moved in some three years ago. Mrs Watson, rumoured to be a widow, was not a member of Neighbourhood Watch or any other local organisation. Grace had never seen her, but others claimed to have caught sight of her occasionally driving off early in the morning. A high privet hedge guarded the front of the house from the inquisitive glances of neighbours. After a while the more gregarious folk of Artisan Road assumed Mrs Watson wished to keep to herself, and interest in her apparently low-key life soon waned. The house itself was one of the more eccentric in the road: the ground floor was built of bright red brick, the upper floors were snow-cemmed pebble-dash. High gables were inlaid with dark beams that pointed in random directions, a reference to the Tudor period probably not designed to be humorous, but which always made Grace smile. The house was an exact replica of a doll's house, made in the forties, she had been given as a child. She had spent many happy hours in that house, easily able to reduce herself to the size of the miniature family that lived there, and joined the life she provided for them through her imagination. Though she had never been inside The Firs, each time she passed it she sensed an inner gust of recognition. She felt warm towards it, and curious. That particular afternoon there was a light on in an upstairs window. Even on dark winter afternoons Grace had never seen a light before. Encouraged, swinging the collecting tin in hope, she hurried into the gloomy area of tarmacked drive behind the privet hedge, and rang the front doorbell. After a long time - so long, Grace was about to give up - the door was opened by a young man in pyjama bottoms and a T-shirt. He was unshaven, apparently sleepy. Grace felt immediate awkward guilt. Perhaps she had woken him. He held a Walkman in one hand. The wires of his earplugs flopped over his chest. He looked hard at Grace - a mystified, unseeing look as if he could not quite focus - and was puzzled by her presence. 'What?' he said. 'Sorry if I've disturbed you,' said Grace. 'I've come--' 'Do I know you?' 'No. But I'm a neighbour. I'm collecting for ...' Suddenly confused, Grace could not remember for whom she was collecting. Was it the blind, the deaf, birds, animals, Bosnia? She looked down at the label on the pretext of rattling the tin. 'Muscular dystrophy' 'I don't know anyone with muscular dystrophy.' 'Nor do I.' 'I'm Lucien.' He suddenly grinned, unplugged himself from the Walkman. 'Let's see what we can do.' He turned away from Grace to a cluttered hall table. The hall was panelled in dark wood, and narrow. Two shut doors. Very few clues, except for a dying pot plant. Lucien picked up a woman's crocodile handbag - real, Grace realised. He pulled out a twenty-pound note and handed it to her. Grace hesitated. 'That's an awful lot,' she said. 'She can afford it.' 'Sure?' 'Sure. She's ordered a Mercedes. She's got three diamond rings, champagne stuffing the fridge, everything she bloody wants. She can afford it.' As Grace still made no move, Lucien stepped towards her and pushed the note clumsily into the tin. So near, he smelt powerfully: a sour-sleep smell, smoke, sweat, garlic. 'Well, if you're sure,' said Grace. 'Thanks very much.' Lucien moved back into the house. 'Where'd you live, then?' 'Reddish House, just down the road.' 'One with all the leaves?' 'That's right.' 'Think I know it. I don't go out much. What's your name?' 'Grace. Grace Handle.' Lucien thought about that for a long time. Grace wondered if he would ask the usual question, but reckoned he did not look like the sort of young man whose musical tastes encompassed Handel. She shifted, ready to go. 'Want to come in?' Grace hesitated again. Curiosity nearly overcame her. 'I'd love to. But I have to get round a lot of houses before it's dark.' 'Yeah, well.' He put back the earplugs. 'Tell you what, I'll drop round to your house one day. We could carry on talking. All right?' 'That would be fine.' Unsure that he could hear her reply, Grace nodded. Lucien shut the door. Grace hurried back to the road swinging the collecting box again, this time almost in triumph. What a very curious encounter, she thought. It would make a good story to tell William at supper that night. The sort of thing he would enjoy. Later, encouraged by William's laughter, she embellished her description as far as she could without breaking the frail fabric of reality. And next morning at breakfast, when the wild-looking Lucien stuck his head through the kitchen window and said he was coming to join them, William recognised the truth of his wife's story. But reluctant to become involved in neighbourly chat so early, he hurried upstairs without finishing his coffee. Uninvited, Lucien quickly took his chair and would have drunk from William's cup had not Grace thrust a clean one at him. He looked at her furiously. 'Lobelia's bought a leather coat!' he shouted. 'Who's Lobelia?' 'My bloody mother. The one who gave you twenty pounds. I'm going to cut it up, burn it.' Several replies flashed through Grace's mind, but she made none of them. Instead she offered sugar, milk, toast and marmalade before Lucien returned to his angry diatribe. That first morning of ranting was eleven months ago. EASY SILENCE. Copyright © 1999 by Angela Huth. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Easy Silence by Angela Huth All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.