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Read an extract from Towards Zero

1st September 2018

Read an extract from September's Book of the Month: Towards Zero.

It was an April day such as usually occurs at least once in a month, hotter than most of the June days to follow. 

Nevile Strange was coming down the stairs. He was dressed in white flannels and held four tennis racquets under his arm.

If a man could have been selected from amongst other Englishmen as an example of a lucky man with nothing to wish for, a Selection Committee might have chosen Nevile Strange. He was a man well known to the British public, a first-class tennis player and all-round sportsman. Though he had never reached the finals at Wimbledon, he had lasted several of the opening rounds and in the mixed doubles had twice reached the semi-finals. He was, perhaps, too much of an all-round athlete to be a Champion tennis player. He was scratch at golf, a fine swimmer and had done some good climbs in the Alps. He was thirty-three, had magnificent health, good looks, plenty of money, an extremely beautiful wife whom he had recently married and, to all appearances, no cares or worries. 

Nevertheless as Nevile Strange went downstairs this fine morning a shadow went with him. A shadow perceptible, perhaps, to no eyes but his. But he was aware of it, the thought of it furrowed his brow and made his expression troubled and indecisive. 

He crossed the hall, squared his shoulders as though definitely throwing off some burden, passed through the living-room and out on to a glass-enclosed verandah where his wife, Kay, was curled up amongst cushions drinking orange juice. 

Kay Strange was twenty-three and unusually beautiful. She had a slender but subtly voluptuous figure, dark red hair, such a perfect skin that she used only the slightest make-up to enhance it, and those dark eyes and brows which so seldom go with red hair and which are so devas¬tating when they do.

Her husband said lightly: 
‘Hullo, Gorgeous, what’s for breakfast?’ 
Kay replied: ‘Horribly bloody-looking kidneys for you— and mushrooms—and rolls of bacon.’ 
‘Sounds all right,’ said Nevile. 

He helped himself to the aforementioned viands and poured out a cup of coffee. There was a companionable silence for some minutes. 

‘Oo,’ said Kay, voluptuously wriggling bare toes with scarlet manicured nails. ‘Isn’t the sun lovely? England’s not so bad after all.’ 
They had just come back from the South of France. 
Nevile, after a bare glance at the newspaper headlines, had turned to the Sports page and merely said ‘Um . . .’ 

Then, proceeding to toast and marmalade, he put the paper aside and opened his letters. There were a good many of these, but most of them he tore across and chucked away. Circulars, advertisements, printed matter. 

Kay said: ‘I don’t like my colour scheme in the living-room. Can I have it done over, Nevile?’ 
‘Anything you like, beautiful.’ 
‘Peacock blue,’ said Kay dreamily, ‘and ivory satin cushions.’ 
‘You’ll have to throw in an ape,’ said Nevile. 
‘You can be the ape,’ said Kay. 
Nevile opened another letter. 

‘Oh, by the way,’ said Kay. ‘Shirty has asked us to go to Norway on the yacht at the end of June. Rather sickening we can’t.’
She looked cautiously sideways at Nevile and added wistfully: ‘I would love it so.’ 

Something, some cloud, some uncertainty, seemed hovering on Nevile’s face. 

Kay said rebelliously: ‘Have we got to go to dreary old Camilla’s?’ 

Nevile frowned. 

‘Of course we have. Look here, Kay, we’ve had this out before. Sir Matthew was my guardian. He and Camilla looked after me. Gull’s Point is my home, as far as any place is home to me.’ 

‘Oh all right, all right,’ said Kay. ‘If we must, we must. After all, we get all that money when she dies, so I suppose we have to suck up a bit.’

Nevile said angrily: 
‘It’s not a question of sucking up! She’s no control over the money. Sir Matthew left it in trust for her during her lifetime and to come to me and my wife afterwards. It’s a question of affection. Why can’t you understand that?’ 

Kay said, after a moment’s pause: 
‘I do understand really. I’m just putting on an act because—well because I know I’m only allowed there on sufferance as it were. They hate me! Yes, they do! Lady Tressilian looks down that long nose of hers at me and Mary Aldin looks over my shoulder when she talks to me. It’s all very well for you. You don’t see what goes on.’ 
‘They always seem to be very polite to you. You know quite well I wouldn’t stand for it if they weren’t.’ 

Kay gave him a curious look from under her dark lashes.
‘They’re polite enough. But they know how to get under my skin all right. I’m the interloper, that’s what they feel.’ 
‘Well,’ said Nevile, ‘after all, I suppose—that’s natural enough, isn’t it?’ 
His voice had changed slightly. He got up and stood looking out at the view with his back to Kay. 

‘Oh yes, I dare say, it’s natural. They were devoted to Audrey, weren’t they?’ Her voice shook a little. ‘Dear, well-bred, cool, colourless Audrey! Camilla’s not forgiven me for taking her place.’ 

Nevile did not turn. His voice was lifeless, dull. He said: ‘After all, Camilla’s old—past seventy. Her generation doesn’t really like divorce, you know. On the whole I think she’s accepted the position very well considering how fond she was of—of Audrey.’ 
His voice changed just a little as he spoke the name. 
‘They think you treated her badly.’ 
‘So I did,’ said Nevile under his breath, but his wife heard. 

‘Oh Nevile—don’t be so stupid. Just because she chose to make such a frightful fuss.’ 
‘She didn’t make a fuss. Audrey never made fusses.’ 
‘Well, you know what I mean. Because she went away and was ill, and went about everywhere looking broken-hearted. That’s what I call a fuss! Audrey’s not what I call a good loser. From my point of view if a wife can’t hold her husband she ought to give him up gracefully! You two had nothing in common. She never played a game and was as anaemic and washed up as—as a dishrag. No life or go in her! If she really cared about you, she ought to have thought about your happiness first and been glad you were going to be happy with someone more suited to you.’ 

Nevile turned. A faintly sardonic smile played around his lips. 
‘What a little sportsman! How to play the game in love and matrimony!’ 
Kay laughed and reddened. 

‘Well, perhaps I was going a bit too far. But at any rate once the thing had happened, there it was. You’ve got to accept these things!’ 

Nevile said quietly: 
‘Audrey accepted it. She divorced me so that you and I could marry.’ 
‘Yes, I know—’ Kay hesitated. 
Nevile said: ‘You’ve never understood Audrey.’ 
‘No, I haven’t. In a way, Audrey gives me the creeps. I don’t know what it is about her. You never know what she’s thinking . . . She’s—she’s a little frightening.’ 
‘Oh, nonsense, Kay.’ 
‘Well, she frightens me.’

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