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Elizabeth Buchan

Against Her Nature

Elizabeth Buchan - Against Her Nature

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Love, money, children…. Life is a risk, however much we try to protect ourselves….

Tess and Becky are of the generation that reckons it can have everything. High flyers in the high-octane world of London’s high-finance, they move through the opportunities, the short-termists, the sharks, the bullies and the very, very rich to face many choices, not least the one presented by biology: children.

How they and an older generation balance the texture of their lives is offered in a story with universal themes which combines an unexpected love story with a journey to maturity.

Read An Extract

Becky and Tess were comparatively new friends and, as is the case with older friendships, areas had not yet emerged that were unwise to examine. They discussed everything, obsessively and at length. It was extraordinary, Tess exclaimed, how every detail, every nuance, that they aired of their feelings drew them closer together, and how well they understood each other.

Becky was less sure of the last point but willing, for the time being at any rate, to go along with it.

‘You really don’t mind about me and Jack?’ she asked Tess, for the fourth time. She seemed uneasy.

It was Friday night and the two girls had been to a French film in Notting Hill Gate and had emerged blinking into the night.

Tess did not stop to reflect. ‘Of course not, I love the idea. Why should I mind?’

The certainty returned to Becky’s expression. ‘As long as you don’t object’.

Her best friend. Her loved brother. Tess admired the neatness and symmetry of the affair and, since it did not occur to her that things did not always happen for the best, she sat firmly on the occasional stab of jealousy. Becky had been hers first and, sometimes, it pained her a little to see Jack claim her.

Funnily enough, for she did not often waste energy on such sensitivities, Becky understood. ‘But I love you too’ she said, and gave Tess a quick kiss before running to catch her bus home. After a few paces, she turned to look back. ‘Mind you go to that party,’ she called.

Tess had been invited to a party by a colleague and Becky had had to work hard to persuade her to go. Tess had declared that she was too fat and the women would be beautiful. Becky replied that Tess was in danger of living too much inside herself and it was making her lazy.

‘It’s too easy to turn inwards,’ she scolded. ‘And, given half a chance, that’s what you’d do. You’ll end up holding parties in your head and becoming a recluse.’

Tess was so pleased and flattered that Becky had bothered to think about her in such depth and with such a degree of insight that she found herself agreeing to so.

London was swathed in late summer dust, whirling pollens and pollution, and the following evening Tess sneezed several times as she walked down the Chelsea street. So fresh and inviting earlier in the year, gardens were now filled with ochre and yellow, their city soil exhausted by the demands made on it.

The party was being held in a house owned by the portfolio administrator at Metrobank. By nine o’clock it was in full swing and Tess had been hating it for the last half-hour.

‘Hallo,’ said a square-jawed, square-shouldered man, with a lock of dark hair falling over his forehead. ‘I’m George Mason and I’ve been watching you’ (Watching Tess’s treacherous, glowing skin with its frequent blushes.)

‘Hi.’ Tess hated herself when she said hi. She searched in her handbag for her cigarettes.

‘And this is Iain MacKenzie,’ said George, pointing at the older man who stood beside him. ‘Fellow officer and friend who hauls me out of trouble. Frequently. I give you fair warning that where I go Iain comes too. Providing Flora, the wife – his wife, I mean – lets him.’

‘Will you shut up?’ Iain smiled at Tess. ‘One glass and he reverts.’

‘How do you do?’ said Tess

Iain took her hand. His was warm and large. ‘It’s nice to meet you but I can see Flora signalling, so…’

George watched his friend’s retreating back. ‘Ruled by his wife,’ he said.

A youth lurched past them, pupils boiled-looking and drugged.

‘This is the sort of party,’ Tess said, ‘where if anyone looks deep into your eyes, it’s to see their own reflection.’

George bent over and looked deep into hers. ‘In yours I see a maiden who needs rescuing.’

It is not often in a life that its course is determined within a second, but when it does happen, it is worth recording. Tess always remembered the exact scent of the tobacco plants in the terracotta pot on the patio, the colours of the women’s clothes, the strange, whitish quality of the sky.

‘You look interesting’ he told her, still looking into… What was he looking into? Her soul? ‘I know you’re interesting.’

Cigarette in hand, and bothered by his actorish quality, she looked back at him, her lower lip caught, in her confusion between her teeth. Her silky, youthful bloom caught George on the raw.

‘George!’ shrieked a voice. ‘Darling, darling! Where’ve you been with not a squeak out of naughty you?’ In a Lycra dress that barely covered her rump, a girl wrapped thin arms around George’s neck and kissed him over and over again.

Women, Tess had once been lectured by a feminist, should make the running. Consider for how long the chains have been round our necks. Break ’em. She considered what the running might be in this sort of situation and concluded, not for the first time, that theory and practice were not related.

George and the girl appeared to be wriggling about satisfactorily and Tess was awed to see that she was not wearing any knickers. Behind the girl’s back, George raised one finger and pointed it at Tess. ‘Wait’ he mouthed.

Tess slid away from him and the entwined nymph and went to admire the small, smart London garden. On balance, she did not rate being young, a condition that left her frequently depressed and underlined her inexperience and sense of powerlessness.

It was not a fashionable view, but bugger that, she thought.

She lit another cigarette. Nicotine, wonderful nicotine, burned its way into her system and the smoke hit the back of her throat with its customary thud. Glorious, unselfish cigarettes, little pencils of comfort and courage. Tess smoked hers down to the stub then buried it in the flowerbed.

‘Dinner,’ George Mason had detached himself from Miss Lycra. He did not seem to think that she might say no.

Nor could she.

Over dinner in a restaurant poised equidistant between the very smart and the avoidable, George spoke on the subject in which he appeared to excel: himself. Charming and persuasive, he threw disconcerting flashes of modesty and humour into the sparkle, much as dun-coloured feathers among fancy plumage soothe the eye. Yet Tess was not entirely convinced for she gained the impress that this display was an effort for him, even distasteful. She suspected, too, that he did not like himsself very much, just as she did not always like herself either, and her romantic instincts stirred.

‘The Army sent me to university. Edinburgh. I was lucky and got an early captaincy.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Twenty-eight.’

‘And then?’

George’s attitude suggested that what he was going to say did not matter at all. ‘Northern Ireland. I had a good tour and my platoon found a cache of explosives.’ Tess had an impression that she was looking at a file marked ‘Top Secret’. George paused, his unmilitary hair falling across his forehead, and decided to close the file, leaving her tantalized. ‘Success is always useful.’

For the life of her, Tess could think of nothing interesting to say. Her tongue was tied, her waistband was tight and never, ever again would she eat dessert. How else could she ever be naked in front on this man? She dropped her head between her hands and pushed back her heavy fair hair. When her face emerged, the skin was stained a pure rose.

Reviews

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A modern day Vanity Fair... brilliantly done.

Mail on Sunday

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The pursuit of money, allied to the pursuit of love, is one of fiction's most dynamic themes... an absorbing tale and a salutary one.

Helen Dunmore

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Passion, death corruption, the catastrophic Lloyds crash... superb writing, pacy, sharp, dramatic, utterly gripping.

Val Hennessy, Woman's Journal

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Horribly well done.

Sunday Times