Norman Thomas di Giovanni

    Home by Tom di Giovanni

    Coming Home

    For the first time in ten years Martin Addison was coming home. Home, to the West Country town where he had grown up. Home, to Ilmington Spa, with its Regency buildings, its bustle, and its memories.

    Martin relaxed in his seat and looked out of the window, allowing his mind to be calmed by the motion of the train. A series of fields and hedgerows trundled past, all lush grass and hawthorn and gently rolling hills.

    A farm approached, a cluster of brick buildings and corrugated iron barns. At their heart, a dirty tractor sat next to a spotless family car. Martin pulled out a notepad and began to sketch the scene, in his imagination converting the barns into houses.

    He looked up from the drawing and took in a group of cows ambling away from the line. Something stirred in Martin's head.

    'It's a cow's name.'

    'It's a nice name.'

    'You're just saying that.'

    'I like it.'

    'It still reminds me of cows.'

    'It reminds me of you.'

    Daisy. Martin sighed. He knew it would only be a matter of time before something - everything - reminded him of her. He'd lived in Ilmington for seventeen years before he met her; he'd gone out with her for a bare three months. But even now, ten years later, he couldn't so much as think of Ilmington without it bringing to mind Daisy's face, Daisy's voice. After all these years, everything he remembered of the place - every shop, every park, every building - was still touched by her memory.

    He tried to push the thoughts of her from his mind. She had probably long since moved away. And anyway, that was a different Martin Addison - the sentimental schoolboy, not the successful architect he had become.

    He returned to his sketch, filling in details, drawing a couple standing by one of the doors. A happy family was always a good selling point. He looked up. The woman in the facing seat seemed to be admiring his efforts. Martin smiled to himself and put the pad away. The train was nearly there; in the distance was the church tower that marked the first sighting of Ilmington. The view still felt familiar, and again uncomfortable memories surfaced in his mind. But as the train pulled in, Martin's apprehension gave way to wonder.

    He took a moment to admire the station building, a magnificent edifice linked to a canopy of iron and glass. It had been designed when the town was one of the country's most fashionable resorts and when express trains brought in droves of tourists. Now all the posters trumpeted the delights of other places - anywhere but here. Signs of former glory were everywhere decaying and coated in thick dust. Martin didn't mind; the grime made the place familiar and comfortable. Had anything been cleaned since he left?

    His hotel was a short walk from the station, a modern facility behind a preserved façade. Years ago he had watched it being rebuilt. This was the first time he had seen it completed, and already the interior looked tired. The receptionist took his details, and Martin smiled at the familiar West Country burr. Okay, he might be staying in a hotel, but he was back in Ilmington, back home.

    Work

    'Never go back.'

    'What's that?'

    'Never go back,' Martin repeated. He turned from the office window to face Charles, the architect who sat at the next desk. The two had moved up together from the firm's Oxford base to open the new office in Ilmington. 'Never mind. I was talking to myself.'

    Charles raised his head from his drawing. 'We've been here for two days,' he said. 'Isn't it a bit soon to be jumping ship?'

    'I didn't mean that,' Martin said.

    'This place seems fine to me,' Charles continued. 'You grew up here. It's a wonder you ever left.'

    Best leave it alone. Martin avoided his colleague's gaze and returned to his current project, a new retail development for the neighbouring town of Kilminster. On the computer was a smart row of shops, topped by flats with balconies - Kingsgate Mall, Kilminster's Newest Shopping Destination. But something about the design wasn't right, and Martin was not yet sure what.

    He leaned back in his chair and flicked through the pages of his sketchpad. The sheets were covered with drawing after drawing, sometimes of whole buildings, sometimes of tiny details redrawn and re-imagined. He closed his eyes. Memories flitted through his mind, images, things he had seen, details he had recorded.

    He reached for a box file of photographs, pictures he had taken himself. In one, a famous railway bridge stared back at him. He turned to the next image, and the next, until he found what he was looking for - a tatty row of houses, formerly town houses for the great and good, now reduced to flats in an area no longer fashionable. A line of balconies, once resplendent beneath gaily coloured canopies, hung in differing states of decay.

    Martin studied the photo, then went on to another, which had been taken just around the corner from the site of Kingsgate Mall. He switched back and forth between the two. In a blank corner of his pad and started to draw. Two or three iterations later, he held up the result. Yes, this was what he wanted.

    He looked around. The office was nearly empty. Emily was out visiting a prospective client; in reception, Nena was on the phone. He spied Charles in the kitchen making coffee. He'd have one too.

    'Here, Charles. Have a look at this.'

    Charles took the pad; Martin poured himself a coffee.

    'Who's this?' Charles asked, looking at a sketch of a woman's face - Daisy's.

    'Old friend.' Martin snatched back the pad.

    'Nice.'

    'What did you think of the balcony?'

    'Let me have another look.'

    This time Martin held on to the pad.

    'I like this,' Charles said, indicating a detail beneath one of the windows.

    Martin smiled. 'I was hoping you'd say that.'

    'Another of your creations?'

    'It's based on a building in Canchester, but I've tweaked it a bit.'

    Charles puzzled over the drawing. 'It's a lot of effort for something that just sits under people's feet,' he said. 'Why haven't you drawn it straight on? This is - what, from underneath?' He tilted his head, trying to make sense of the angle. 'I get it. It's from street level.'

    Martin smiled. 'It's a narrow street. You'll never see it any other way.'

    He went back to his desk. It was time to get his ideas onto the computer. An hour later, Martin leaned back and examined the screen. The sketch had been transformed into an almost photographic image in three dimensions. He checked a number of angles as if he were looking up at the balcony from below.

    Satisfied, he returned to his sketchpad and the portrait Charles had been looking at. Martin had drawn it the morning before in his hotel room, staring out of the window, watching the dawn light up the town. The page showed a woman of about his age, maybe a little younger, smiling cheerfully.

    Where was she now? Was she still writing? Over the years he had looked for her name in bookshops, even though he knew he wouldn't find it. She'd always said that when she was published she would use a different name. 'Daisy Davies - it's a stupid name,' she had said. 'A cow's name.'

    But to Martin it was just the kind of name a couple of aging hippies would call their daughter. He remembered his one and only meeting with her parents at their modest house in Neath. He had sat in silent reverence, listening to the singsong tones of the mother's voice, thinking that if this was what Daisy was going to be like when she was older he could do far worse. No, he didn't think it was a cow's name. He could never think that of her.

    He returned to reality and a clean sheet of paper. Balcony done. Time for an early lunch.

    He turned to Charles. 'Fancy popping out for a sandwich?'

    'No, thanks. I want to finish this first.'

    On the street, shoppers and office workers wandered through the old town, heading this way and that, window shopping. As usual, Martin took in every detail. After all, observation was key to his job. And there was still plenty to observe in Ilmington.

    He found his way to the counter of a gleaming sandwich bar. At one table, two besuited businessmen were deep in conversation. At another, a new mum with a pushchair. Behind the counter, a girl waited to take his order.

    'Good morning. What can I get you?'

    The question hung there, unanswered. Martin's gaze went across the room to a woman sitting with a newspaper and a large mug of coffee.

    He gaped. His heart raced. To his absolute horror, the woman looked up and her eyes caught his.

    It was her. It was Daisy.

    The Dell

    'Hurry up, Martin. You're going to be late.'

    He crammed the last of his school books into his bag, checked his tie, and dashed downstairs. His mum stood in the kitchen doorway.

    'See you later,' he said.

    He raced out of the door into the still quiet streets. He hated having to get up this early, but it was the only time the band could get together. And with the big gig coming up, they really needed the practice.

    Martin headed straight for The Dell, the sunken park he used as a shortcut. As he hurried down the tarmac path, from somewhere ahead he heard a voice singing.

    He peered through the trees but could see nothing. He moved on and below him, beyond a laurel hedge, was a single figure - a girl, a young woman, sitting on the roundabout, playing a guitar.

    I spill my tea, o silly me.

    I wonder, should I stay now ...

    The song was familiar. Fascinated, he kept himself hidden. Her voice was deep and soulful. She was pouring herself into the performance. But was it a performance if she didn't know anyone was listening?

    Abruptly, she stopped. He had been spotted.

    'Hello?' she called out.

    For a second or two he thought of running off. Instead, he stepped forward and greeted her.

    'Great voice.'

    'Thank you.'

    'Hazel O'Connor?'

    'No, Daisy Davies.'

    'I meant the song.'

    She laughed. 'I'm surprised you know it. Bit eighties for you, I'd have thought.'

    Martin was suddenly conscious of his school bag and tie.

    'I suppose you think it's a bit odd, me sitting here first thing in the morning, singing to myself.'

    He floundered. She smiled. She had a great smile, and big brown eyes. And a Welsh lilt.

    'Only I woke up early, and I didn't think my flatmates would appreciate the noise.'

    'I can think of worse ways to be woken up,' Martin said.

    'Thanks,' she said. 'But I don't think they'd see it like that.'

    Martin told her he played guitar too. She was studying English at the university, she said. He replied that he was in his final year at school.

    He nodded at the instrument in her hands. 'Nice guitar.'

    'My parents gave it me as a going away present. You fancy a go?'

    His fingers brushed against hers as he took the guitar. He looked down at the strings, too shy to make eye contact, and stroked a couple of chords. He realized he was playing a hopelessly romantic song, 'I Don't Want to Talk About It', but it was too late to stop now. At the end of the intro he started to sing.

    I can tell by your eyes

    that you've almost been crying for ever ...

    He looked up; she was smiling at him. Without warning, she joined in, singing in harmony.

    I don't want to talk about it,

    how you broke my heart ...

    Now he was just playing the chords and listening to her. They slowed into the last line and ended together.

    After an age, Daisy broke the silence.

    'Lovely,' she said.

    'I have to go,' he said. 'I have a band practice at eight.'

    Neither of them moved.

    'You going to be here tomorrow?' he asked.

    'With any luck, I'll be asleep.'

    'Can I have your number?'

    The words were out before Martin knew what he was saying. He blushed, but then was thrilled to see her rummaging for a pen. He reached for his bag and, unable to find a suitable scrap of paper, he tore a corner off his homework. He tore off another corner - might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb - and wrote on it.

    'Martin,' she read.

    'Can I ring you this evening?'

    'You've got my number.'

    She waved him off. When he looked back, she was singing again - the song they were singing together. He ran the three blocks to his school.

    'Sorry I'm late,' Martin said, as he burst into the practice room. The others had already set up and were waiting for him.

    'Where the hell have you been?' Jimmy Clark called out from behind his drum kit.

    'Well,' Martin said, 'maybe I stopped to talk to Huckleberry Finn.'

    At the Café

    Her hair was longer, she looked older, tired, but it was definitely her. He had wondered how he'd cope if he bumped into her and had persuaded himself she couldn't still be living in Ilmington. Now here she was.

    He asked for a sandwich and, trying to compose his mind, made his way to Daisy's table.

    'You recognized me, then,' she said.

    'How could I forget?'

    'It's been ages. How have you been?'

    Martin explained. Oxford, architecture exams, starting practice. 'That's why I'm back,' he concluded. 'My firm's opened a new office here.'

    'The prodigal returns.'

    He nodded.

    'Where are you staying?'

    'The Regency.'

    'You grew up here and now you're staying in a hotel.'

    'How about you?' he said. 'Still living in Ilmington?'

    'I never got round to leaving. Besides, I like it here.'

    So did he, when he could escape from the black memories. He changed the subject.

    'So, what are you up to? Writing?'

    'I work for the local paper.'

    'Interesting?'

    'Not really,' she said. 'Ever listen to "Dead Man Weds?"'

    Martin looked blank.

    'Radio Four sitcom about a local paper. It's just like that, only less interesting.'

    'I don't think anyone's ever done a sitcom about architects. That must make us even more dull. What about your fiction writing. Weren't you going to write a novel?'

    'I thought about it,' she said. 'Never really got started - well, never finished anyway. Never found my voice. Does that sound silly?'

    'No,' he said. 'I think I understand. You write, but whatever you do, you're never happy with it. You feel other people do it better. And why would anyone want to read what you write when there's better stuff out there.'

    'Yes,' she said. 'That's pretty much it.'

    'I've seen it at work,' Martin said. 'You get someone new in, just qualified. They're eager to do a good job but they end up trying too hard - trying to be Norman Foster or Frank Lloyd Wright.'

    Was he being too garrulous? He didn't seem to know how to stop. He went on.

    'So however hard they try, they keep coming up with inferior copies. Until one day they get fed up and say stuff it, they're not going to bother looking at what other people do, they're just going to put down the first thing that comes into their heads and see how it goes.'

    'And what if it's a load of rubbish?'

    'Then at least it's their rubbish. You just keep picking out the bits you like until they start doing something good.'

    'Funny, I never really thought of architects having a voice.'

    'We might not call it that, but it's the same thing.'

    Daisy sipped her coffee; Martin ate his sandwich. Their conversation meandered, and he began to wonder whether she'd met anyone else. He had to assume she had; he was irritated with himself to find he still cared. But he couldn't ask.

    There was an awkward silence. He cast around for something to say.

    'You still singing?'

    'Only in the shower.'

    'I always thought you had a lovely voice.'

    Silence.

    'So, you're moving to Ilmington,' she said.

    'Yes.'

    'Bringing anyone with you?'

    'What?'

    'I mean - are you married? Children?'

    'No,' he said. 'Still single.'

    It suddenly occurred to him that the answer to the question he couldn't bring himself to ask was probably sitting on her left hand. But it was below the table, out of view.

    'And you?' he said. 'Met anyone?'

    'No,' she said. 'I mean, yeah, a few people. But not ... I'm not married.'

    'Just never met the right guy?'

    A strange look came over her face. After a silence, she looked down at her watch.

    'Half past,' she said. 'I must get back.'

    'Look,' he said, 'I'm new here, I don't really know many people ...'

    He got out his business card and circled the mobile number. 'Give me a call some time,' he said.

    She took the card. 'Principal Architect,' she read aloud. 'That sounds fancy.'

    'They like pretentious titles. No one wants to hire a junior trainee.'

    She reached for a serviette and wrote something on it. Her name and a phone number.

    'You're still Daisy then?' he said.

    'Is it such a bad name?'

    'You used to say it was.'

    'Did I?' She smiled. 'Silly me.'

    She stood up. Martin stood up.

    'It's was nice to see you again,' he said.

    'And you.'

    He watched her leave and felt a weight had lifted off him. He was no longer afraid. He was home.

    They Shall Grow Not Old

    A couple of days passed. The front elevation of Kingsgate Mall, the latest version, hung completed over Martin's desk, but the floor plan was still unresolved. After struggling with it for most of the day he needed a break.

    'Meeting a client?' Charles asked, as Martin packed his bag.

    'Research,' Martin said. 'Looking for ideas.'

    'Going shopping, more like,' chipped in Emily from the next desk.

    'Well, I am working on a retail development,' Martin said with a wink.

    Stepping out into the network of narrow streets and lanes, he felt a rush of fresh air and a world teeming with life. A pair of schoolchildren ran past, laughing, probably playing truant. A woman shopper, stock-still, admired the mannequins in a window display. Overhead, an old man leaned out from an attic dormer. At a florist's, a Mercedes was parked on double yellow lines, two wheels up on the pavement, hazard lights flashing. Already Martin's head was clearing.

    Around the corner, a view opened up, long terraces of Regency townhouses snaking up the hillside. His eye picked out a big villa he'd visited for a student party many years before. He'd been with Daisy; he was the youngest person there. Now the place seemed far too smart for student lets.

    A minute or two later he found himself in a Starbucks. With a large latte before him, he sat back and flipped open his pad. Without thinking, he turned to the sketch of Daisy. Her face looked less familiar now; this wasn't the woman he'd encountered in the café. Looking at his sketch, he felt a growing unease. It wasn't that he might have expected to find her unchanged. He hadn't drawn her as a twenty-year-old; twenty now felt very young, the age of giggling students. But he had drawn someone who was professional, vivacious, go-getting. The woman in the café had looked tired and worn. Whoever she was, she wasn't his Daisy.

    For two days, locked into his work, he had kept his thoughts of her at arm's length. Now he was beginning to see why. While at first he felt elated to see her again, now, somehow, he felt disappointment. Martin turned the page and concentrated on his floor plan. Now, if he moved the entrance round here....

    Half an hour later, he had the problem nailed. He was about to leave when another memory popped into his head. He went back to the counter.

    'You don't know if there's still a music shop around here somewhere?' he asked the girl who had served him. 'A guitar shop. Tony's, I think it was called.'

    'I dunno,' she said. She turned to a colleague. 'Here, Marv. You know a guitar shop round abouts? Tony's?'

    'Sure, I remember it,' he said. 'Like, until six years ago. It was just next door, before this all got rebuilt. You could try the Blue Note. Regent Square. You know it?'

    Disappointed, Martin stepped outside. He doubted whether he was really looking for a guitar shop - just the memories that went with it. He remembered the long route home, stopping and looking at the instruments in Tony's window, at the Lake Placid Blue electric that seemed to light up as he spotted it. The times he had gone inside, picked up a guitar he could never afford, and started to play. Tony never minded. 'Try this one,' he would say. 'New in today. What do you think?'

    The streets were quieter now. Shoppers were starting to go home to beat the rush, and most of the town's office workers were still at their desks. Martin passed a harassed woman pushing a toddler in a buggy and dragging another boy by the hand. Rounding the corner into a big square, he took delight in the town houses that formed the four sides. In the centre was a garden hedged in with privet. Ornate light fittings hung out over the wide pavement, looking as if they'd been designed for gaslight. Once opulent residences, many had been converted into shops or offices, taking advantage of the central location. But it was easy to picture the street of old and to imagine a smart horse-drawn carriage, with a footman stepping down to open the door to a party of aristocratic young ladies.

    Martin pressed on. This was the hour he felt it most - the loneliness and anonymity of his hotel. It was part of his relocation package, until he found somewhere to settle in. He enjoyed eating out every night; he enjoyed the hotel breakfast, with the staff fussing around even while half the guests were still asleep. But this dead time between work and dinner, two hours with nowhere to go but back to his hotel room, was pure gloom.

    He was near Regent Square. Maybe he'd check out the shop he'd been told about. It had been a long time since he had visited a guitar shop.

    The Whole of the Moon

    He spotted the Blue Note at once.

    A carved wooden sign hung over a large window that contained a range of instruments. The small room inside was mostly lined with sheet music. A young man rearranged a display of guitar strings behind the one small counter. At first sight it didn't look like much of a shop.

    'Do you sell guitars?' Martin asked.

    'Acoustic or electric?'

    'Acoustic.' A glance around told Martin they couldn't have had room for more than one.

    'In the cellar,' the man said. 'Down the stairs, door on the right.'

    Martin followed his direction. When he pulled open the sound-proofed door, a flood of music was released.

    What met his eye was awesome. The biggish room was filled with guitars. Guitars in every conceivable shape and colour seemed to festoon the walls; more guitars rested on stands on the floor. In a small space in the middle of the room, a young woman sat on an amplifier playing one of them.

    She looked up as he came into the room but carried on playing. As he watched, she began to sing. It wasn't a song he knew, but her rendition of it was impressive. Her high notes rang out, while the lower ones seemed to resonate in his chest. He realized he was gawking, so he turned aside to examine one of the guitars. Abruptly, she stopped.

    'You looking for anything in particular?' she asked.

    Her husky voice carried a definite Ilmington accent. The sound of his childhood, Martin thought.

    'Not really,' he said. 'Just looking.'

    'You can't tell much by just looking,' she said. 'Take something down, give it a try.'

    She was watching him now. He felt suddenly out of place; he was still wearing his suit and tie. He selected a guitar and played a couple of chords. Nice sound. The girl's eyes continued to watch him. They were brown and attractive and subtly outlined in black.

    Martin launched into a jazzy rhythm, strumming through a verse, then a chorus. He glanced up at the girl. She looked interested. He smiled and stopped.

    'I was waiting for you to start singing,' she said.

    'You probably wouldn't know it.'

    'Try me.'

    'The Waterboys? "Whole of the Moon?"'

    'I think I've heard it. Go on, sing it.'

    Martin looked doubtful.

    'Shall I get you a microphone?' she said with a mischievous smile.

    'I'm not really a singer,' Martin said.

    She laughed. 'Don't feel shy on my account.' She drew near and peered at the fret board of the guitar. 'What were those chords?'

    Martin played through the chords, showing her where he was placing his fingers. She watched, then reached for another guitar and tried to copy him.

    'That's not quite right,' Martin said. Again he demonstrated the fingering, adjusting her hand to the right position.

    She strummed the chord. 'Interesting,' she said.

    She played through the sequence, and Martin joined in - slower than before, matching her tempo. Without thinking, he started to sing:

    I pictured a rainbow

    you held it in your hands

    I had flashes

    But you saw the plan ...

    'Nice,' she said, joining in and singing a wordless harmony.

    Martin blushed. He had never felt comfortable singing for anyone else. Except maybe with Daisy. All at once it struck him that this girl was probably the same age as Daisy when he and she first met.

    'Here, try this one,' she said. 'It's a Taylor. I'm Claire, by the way.'

    'Martin.'

    'Martin. Like the guitars.'

    He took the instrument from her and strummed a chord. The sound washed over him, soft, delicate.

    'Wow.' He played another chord. The notes seemed to hang in the air. 'That's beautiful.'

    'It's a great guitar,' she said. 'You play pretty well.'

    'What does this go for?'

    'You don't buy one like this thinking about the price. You buy it because you fall in love with it - and you'd sell your house rather than live without it.'

    'I was afraid of that,' he said.

    'What do you do?'

    'I'm an architect.'

    'As in "I had flashes, but you saw the plan"?'

    'Something like that.'

    'Want to try another one?'

    'After that?' Martin said. 'It would be like serving foie gras followed by angel delight.'

    She laughed, and he noted the twinkle in her eye.

    'You work here, then?' he said.

    'If you can call it that. I sit here playing guitars, talking, singing. And they pay me for it. Cool, eh?'

    He agreed. He glanced at his watch and made ready to leave.

    'Do you know the Midnight Gardener?' Claire said. 'It's in Granger Street. They have an open mic once a month. I sing there sometimes. Would you like to come?'

    'Sounds good.'

    'Next one's in two weeks. What do you think?'

    'I'll have to see,' he said. Then he added, 'Where is Granger Street?'

    'Down by the old baths. It's not much to look at, but it's a nice place. The Midnight Gardener.'

    He made a mental note.

    'See you,' Claire said.

    'And you.'

    There was a spring in his step as he headed back to the hotel.

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