Excerpt of Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt
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Wednesday 22 July 1964
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchills mouth was pursed as if he had a slice of lemon hidden in there. Now aged eighty-nine, he often woke early. Grey dawn appeared in a crack between the curtains, amassing the strength to invade. Churchill prepared himself for the day ahead, his mind putting out analytical fingers and then coming at the day in a fist, ready for it.
A view of the Weald of Kent stretched beyond the window, lying under an animal skin of mist. Bordered to the west by Crockham Hill and to the east by Toys Hill, Churchills red-brick house sat in a shallow coomb, enclosed by a horseshoe of ancient forest that opened in a long, green horizon to the south.
Although he was fully awake, Churchills eyes remained closed. On his back, the bedcovers pulled and folded at his waist, he lay with his arms alongside the quilted log of his body. On the other side of the house, Clementine lay sleeping in her four-poster bed. He thought of his wife, wishing to be with her.
But Churchill wasnt alone in his bedroom; something else in the dark, a mute bulk in the corner, a massive thing, was watching him with tortured concentration.
Churchill was aware of its presence. He didnt need to see or hear it to know it was there; he had more of a sense, an instinctual certainty when it appeared. Its eyes pressed on him hotly, imploring him to wake up. It willed him to move. After hours of waiting it ached with the desire to explode from the corner and shake him.
Churchill spoke in a barely audible whisper, not that it matteredhe knew the thing would be listening.
There was a long silence as the thing scrabbled to compose itself. Churchill could feel it grinning filthily in the blackness. It said with unsuppressed relish, No.
In a terraced house in Battersea, Esther Hammerhans came tearing down the stairs with one arm through a cardigan sleeve, the rest flapping at her legs, and turned off the hob. The kettle stopped its screaming, throwing out hysterical clouds of steam. Esther found the teapot and filled it with hot water, some spilling over the work surface. The tea leaves had been forgotten, something she discovered five minutes later, after a wild campaign with the washing up. Idiots! she cursed the tea leaves, beating them into the water with a spoon.
Then she put on the entire cardigan. This seemed a good step, a positive move. A moment passed where she calmed herself; it was important to look calm. Mr. Chartwell would ar- rive at any minute; it was important that the first impression be a good one. She admired the yellow cabinet doors and drawers which she had scrubbed earlier, the walls painted a paler yellow and lit with a fluorescent tube on the ceiling. The dark-orange tiled floor had been mopped, pots of spices and dried herbs arranged neatly on wiped white-gloss shelves. The blue Formica-topped kitchen table was arranged with a vase of flowers, a stainless-steel candlestick there for show as if she used it every day. Sugar cubes were stacked into the only small bowl without chips. A tasteless bowl designed to resemble a cockerel; Esther had hidden the cockerel-head lid in a drawer.
Esther went to the mirror hung near the window and examined herself, seeing a wispy, long-haired person with a delicate underbite. She had always been slim, slimmer now and a bit bare with it. The mirror returned a smile which expressed fatigue, a varnish of melancholy painted behind the features. The general package, Esther decided, would not benefit from further examination.
The boxroom she wanted to rent didnt have many things but it did have a garden view. Light mobbed every crevice from the first gloss of daybreak, and this would flaunt the rooms extreme cleanliness. The carpet, meticulously hoovered, had come up well and showed its brilliant ochre colour, the colour of a toy lion. A decorative earthenware tile hung on the wall above the beda painted scene of a hillside village in Greece, the white cottages whirling with violently green-and-orange foliage, thick black lines everywhere as if drawn with a thumb. Her friend Beth had loaned her a single bed, a very modest and old bed which didnt look so humble when dressed with fresh sheets and blankets. The lightbulb was decorated with a woven wicker shade, purchased last week, which Esther felt gave the room a sense of style. A new wardrobe completed the rooms transformation into a bedroom. If necessary she would throw in the occasional use of her car.
Excerpted from Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt Copyright © 2011 by Rebecca Hunt. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher