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Agnes Campion is thirty when she inherits Flagge House from her uncle. As she struggles with its upkeep, she scarcely has the energy to cope with the attentions of two different suitors. Julian, a dangerously attractive property developer, makes a living out of everything Agnes despises: is he in love with Agnes or her house? And local farmer Andrew, whose own marriage is failing, has designs on her too.
Then there’s Kitty. Julian’s long-term mistress. Seemingly fragile, she is tough as nails and doesn’t see why a passing infatuation should destroy a carefully balanced relationship she has taken years to build. She won’t give Julian up without a battle, facing her own demons in the process.
Slowly, surely, a love quartet is taking shape, in all its forms of passion and expectation. But only two people will find happiness. Which?
Read An Extract
A month or so before he died, her uncle went blind. ‘No matter,’ he said, in his gentle way. ‘It is to be expected.’
Her heart breaking for the second time in a year, Agnes sat by the bed in the blue room where the spiders made free in the cornice and the cracks ran in dark tributaries across the walls. It was shrouded by the drawn curtains, and borrowed heaters exuded uneven pockets of warmth. She held his hand. ‘Is there anything I can do to make it more bearable?’
His flesh felt lifeless. ‘There is one thing,’ he said. ‘Do you think you could bring up my Jane Austens and put them on the bedside table? I miss them.’
Trying hard not to distress him with her weeping, Agnes went downstairs into his study, searched for the books amongst the papers and unpaid bills and carried them upstairs. She guided her uncle’s fingers over the pile, which she had placed as close to him as possible. The encounter between his fragile fingers and the worn bindings was of old companions. ‘All my life,’ said John, ‘these have been my friends, and I don’t want to abandon them now.’ Exhausted by the effort, he lay back and was quiet.
Neither Maud, John’s wife of forty-five years, nor the nurse approved of this sentimentality. At regular intervals, they attempted to move the books out of the way of the medicines and necessary equipment. At one point Maud, threatened by what she saw as Agnes’s indulgence, snatched up Persuasion and threatened to throw it away. Agnes won and was rewarded by her uncle’s patient smile.
In the lucid moments that were left, John chose to say the things that Agnes already knew but wanted to hear again.
‘I’m glad the house will be yours, Agnes. It is right. No one better.’ The breath was measured between each word.
As the last surviving Campion, Agnes had known that she was to inherit Flagge house, since her uncle explained the position on her sixteenth birthday. It was a trick of fate and fertility that continually brought her up short.
There was another struggling pause. ‘I’m glad we’ve always agreed on what needs to be done. But you will have to find ways. I’ve told you, there is no money.’
Agnes’s mental image of the house grew hazy, and reassembled in sharper detail so that the defective roof and rotting windows were observable. For a second or to, she was shaken by doubt. Then she touched her uncle’s cheek with a finger, willing him into peace as he laboured on. ‘It won’t be easy, Agnes.’
Inheriting an historic, if smallish, manor house was tricky at any time, and a rather vexed subject in the world in which Agnes had chosen to make her career. But she had thrashed that one out with herself. She had been lucky and others were not and, if the golden apple had been tossed into her lap, it was best to make the most of it – precisely because others suffered and had no luck. Anyway, there were her feelings for the house and she loved her uncle. That was important. Why waste energy on unnecessary scruples?
She bent over to kiss him. ‘I promise to do my best.’
While John fought his last battle, she sat on through the bleak January afternoons and silently said goodbye to the security of their relationship. Resting on the sheets, John’s hands were almost as white as the cotton and, occasionally, they clenched in pain. She stroked them, anticipating the time when he would not be there. No longer would his place be laid at the table; his key would remain on its hook in the hall; his voice, having joined the voice of the dead that crowded the husk of the house, would not be heard.
What a stealthy thief Death was, and what a dark and private business dying was. She had encountered it and its effects in her work more than once. They were lucky in the west: the span between the green light and the red was usually reasonable and, very often, by the time the latter flickered, you were aching and ready to go. She glanced at her uncle. That was true in his case but it did not make the passage easier.
Agnes squeezed out a cloth in warm water, to which had been added a drop of Lavender oil, and bathed her uncle’s face and wrists.
‘Uncle John…’ she whispered, but longed to say ‘Father’. ‘Thank you for everything. Thank you for looking after me all those years.’
He turned his head towards her. ‘You were my daughter,’ he said simply.
He shut his eyes and fell into one of his lightning dozes. Outside, in the dark winter world, the wind rattled frozen branches. It was grief-stricken weather: wild, moody and battering, which was only fitting. Slowly the sun abandoned the short day, leaving Flagge House and the water-meadow to the gloom. Complete and turned into itself, the house and the land settled for the night.
‘Are you frightened?’ she asked, when he woke with a start. She thought she saw that his features had sharpened.
He stirred and grimaced. ‘I lost God a long time ago.’
Agnes did not bother him any more but sat, quiet and watchful. Slowly, infinitesimally slowly, John Campion raised his hand and traced the shape of the books he could no longer read.
Are They There, Agnes?
When she woke the next morning, still exhausted from her late-night watch, Maud appeared in her bedroom and told Agnes abruptly that her uncle was dead.
Celebrates human resilience and flexibility... confirms her skill as a storyteller.
Independent on Sunday
If you are looking for a novel about people and issues you really do care about... this is it.
In this the latest of her acutely intelligent novels, Buchan proves she is not only a powerful romantic novelist, she is a nice one too.
A finely written, intelligent romance.
Mail on Sunday
A finely balanced, superior love story.
Beautifully observed and richly detailed, the writer's powerful prose has the ability to move the emotions.