This is a work of fiction.

All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this
novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

the affair. Copyright © 2012 by Alicia Clifford. All rights reserved. Printed in the
United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue,
New York, N.Y. 10010.
www.stmartins.com
Design by Anna Gorovoy
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Clifford, Alicia.
The affair : a novel / Alicia Clifford. — 1st ed.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-0-312-37627-7 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4299-4089-4 (e-book)
1. Women authors—Fiction. 2. Family secrets—Fiction. 3. Marriage—Fiction.
4. Adultery—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6103.L53A69 2012
823'.92—dc23
2011041105
First Edition: March 2012
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chapter one

If perfect understanding can exist between two people, each bound by different
pasts and set in distant shelves, might not all magic be possible?
Appended to undated shopping list
(bone from butcher, coffee, tuna, matches).

The day after the death, a large exotic insect was noticed in the sitting
room of Parr’s, where members of the family had gathered to discuss funeral plans.
“You might like to know, Mummy, there’s a socking great beetle on
your picture.” Robert sounded angry, but only because he was stressed
and fearful. There was a list in front of him because his approach to any
challenge was to reduce it to a series of columns. He’d got as far as
“Hymns.” For the time being, grief had been marginalized.
His seven-year-old niece Bud, with her keener eyesight, corrected
him. “It’s not a beetle. It’s a moth.” She’d been stroking her grandmother’s
limp hands, staring imploringly into her empty eyes. But now, as if giving
up, she rose and approached the picture Robert had indicated.
“Leave it,” cautioned Sarah, as her daughter climbed on a chair. Her
voice was very soft and careful. As she kept reminding everyone, just
because Bud seemed fi ne, that didn’t mean anything. She’d been staying

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Alicia Clifford

with her grandparents when her grandfather had suffered a fatal heart attack, soon after supper was served. It was she who had telephoned
her parents, even as the resident nurse was still absorbing the situation.
“Grandpa has passed away,” she’d announced in an astonishingly composed voice. (Nurse-speak, of course, because nobody in Bud’s family
referred to death like that.) And now, as if all that hadn’t been traumatic
enough, she was forced to witness the effect on her adored grandmother.
For all their efforts to behave normally, the family were frantic. For
years they’d resented the costly invasion of nurses and caregivers; but
now they’d have offered any amount of money if their mother, Celia,
would only return to her former self. Why couldn’t she see the death as a
mercy, like everyone else? She was only sixty-three—years younger than
their father had been— but now seemed bent on following him to the
grave. She wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t speak. But of course the marriage had
been famously happy, and his long illness had only brought them closer.
Then Bud shocked them all by announcing, voice shrill with excitement: “It’s him! The moth’s him!”
“Oh please!” thought Margaret, closing her eyes. She knew it was not
acceptable to criticize a sibling’s child, but this was too much. Bud had
behaved commendably in frightening circumstances, but she should never
have been allowed to sit in on the funeral discussion.
For all her usual indulgence, even Sarah seemed at a loss how to react.
And before anyone could stop her, the child made things worse. Her attitude became conspiratorial, almost loverlike: “He’s come back because
he’s really really worried about you, Gran!” Suddenly she let out a shriek.
“Look! He moved his wings! He heard me! He’s saying yes!”
Celia had been staring into space with that dreadful new apathy, like
a travesty of the daydreamer they’d grown up with. “Off with the fairies
again,” their father used to tease. But suddenly, to their very great relief,
she was back—kind and warm and engaged. “What a perfectly wonderful
idea, darling!”
Margaret (who was good on nature) said tersely: “It looks like an elephant hawk moth to me. But it’s not possible. Not in January.”
“It’s Grandpa!” Bud crossed her arms and glared at them.
“Grandpa . . .” Celia echoed, sounding bemused; then she gave a delighted smile as if inviting everyone to join the game.

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3

Her children exchanged exhausted, uneasy glances—what was this
madness? Then they believed they understood. They were pretty sure
their mother didn’t subscribe to the myth of reincarnation any more than
they did. No, this had to do with applauding in a grandchild something
she’d failed to fi nd in them. They’d no imagination, as Robert would
cheerfully admit. “Not a smidgeon,” he’d say on behalf of them all, sounding exactly like his father. “We’re doers, not thinkers.” And once he’d
demanded, sounding a little aggrieved: “Who wants to sit in a room on
their own, putting a lot of invented people through their paces?” Celia
was the only writer in the family— and good luck to her!
Actually, Bud didn’t believe in reincarnation, either. She’d no idea
where the suggestion had come from. But the magical effect she’d achieved
now provoked an extraordinary reaction in her mother and aunt and uncle. Without conferring, they plunged into making fools of themselves. It
was a measure of their concern. They’d have done anything to stop Celia
from sliding back into that terrible despair.
“It’s funny because he loathes that picture,” observed Margaret, who’d
never have come out with such silliness if her new husband, Charles, had
been there. It was a dingy old oil painting of half a dozen horsemen straggling over a vast plain, which her mother had found somewhere. The family
had always assumed their father disliked it because the riders were disorderly and going nowhere and therefore bound to annoy a former soldier.
“Why’s he sitting on it, then?” asked Robert, mouth twitching as he
imagined describing the scene to his wife, Mel. He ran a hand over his
pink, worried face, like smoothing it out. “Would he want to come back?”
he murmured a little tactlessly.
“He’ll be worrying that we won’t arrange things properly,” said
Sarah. “He’s keeping his beady eye on us all.” Unlike Margaret, she longed
for her husband to be there. Whoopee had a wonderful sense of humor.
He’d have adored watching the Bayley family make fools of themselves.
Bud shrieked: “He’s wearing his specs!”
“So he is!” agreed Celia because, by now, she’d risen to her feet and
crossed the room a little shakily to examine the moth, too.
The two of them were behaving as if they were the only people in the
room. But when Bud began crooning, “Dear little Grandpa!,” the others
came to their senses.

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Alicia Clifford

“That’s quite enough!” said Sarah, unusually sharply.
However, Celia was still staring at the moth. Earlier, she had failed to
react when “Onward Christian Soldiers” was suggested as the first hymn.
But now she said, sounding brisk and anxious to wrap up the meeting,
“Perhaps ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ might be better.”
The strange thing was that the day after the funeral, the moth vanished, never to be seen again. “Daddy’s last inspection,” Robert called
it— as a joke, of course.
It was a turning point, they came to understand: the moment their
mother shook off the seductive tug of death and chose, instead, the pleasure
of watching her grandchildren grow up. Also—and here was the astounding part— she would at last become a real writer.

Nearly twenty years on, keeping each other company on the eve of her far
sadder funeral, Margaret and Sarah recalled that extraordinary demonstration of the power of the will.
“If that hadn’t happened . . .” Sarah began.
“Well, this wouldn’t have,” Margaret responded a little sharply as if
her sister had stated the obvious.
“Why didn’t she warn us?”
Margaret shrugged.
They’d been over this already. Was it their fault— as Margaret was
indicating with that helpless, irritated gesture—that their mother hadn’t
warned them what to expect after her death? Or was it possible that
modest woman had never guessed? The family was in shock and yet, to
the outside world, had to pretend otherwise.
Sitting at their mother’s table in her kitchen, halfway through yet another bottle of good wine from her cellar, the sisters still expected her to
enter at any minute, bent and diminished by age, but still curious, still
amused, still possessed of a remarkable memory. “Oh good!” she’d have
said in her courteous way, “that Sancerre needs drinking” (though it had
been kept for rare dinner parties). She’d have joined them to listen to the
wind moaning down the chimney, bursts of rain spattering the black windowpanes like tears. She’d have smiled at Robert’s lists pinned everywhere, his complicated plan for when the mourners came to the house

The Affair

5

after the funeral the following day; the sound of his voice from his father’s
old study next door as he practiced his address, stopwatch in hand.
“I’m not going to speak about my mother as a writer,” Margaret and
Sarah heard him boom. And then he stopped and began again. “I’m not
here to talk about my mother’s writing. Others far better qualified than
me have already done that . . . Oh, damn and blast!”
The sisters exchanged smiles.
“Others far better qualified than I have already done that . . .”
The house still held her flavor, like a vase just emptied of flowers.
Staring at a diary pinned on the wall, so poignantly empty of spindly blue
writing after August 10, they still expected to hear the irregular tap of
her stick, the gentle humming of a wartime tune (as if part of her pined
for that terrifying era). But it was strangely comforting to feel cross with
her. Of course, she should have prepared them!
However, the truth was, her writing had been ignored within the
family. Their father had set the tone. “Mummy deserves nothing but
praise for the way she keeps at it!” he’d marveled, but almost in the same
breath confessed very apologetically, “Not my sort of thing, I’m afraid.” So
they’d never read her books, either. Looking back, it seemed to them that
their mother had colluded in this. “Froth,” she’d once laughingly described her work. And so it happened that when, at age sixty-four, she
wrote a novel that attracted critical attention, they failed to take account
of that, too, though it was the first to be published under her real name.
Now they stared at photographs of her in the newspapers and re-read
the lengthy obituaries and longed to be able to check with a simple phone
call that the person given such prominence and their mother were the
same. According to a top-ranking literary novelist, who’d started all the
fuss, the woman who’d begun by writing romances had transformed herself into “a sculptor of the human condition; a writer of enormous passion
and truth.” The tabloids had seized on the story, too, with excruciating
(and inaccurate) headlines like, “The eighty-year-old who wrote porn.” It
added spice, of course, that she’d been married to a distinguished soldier.
But at least everyone had stressed the happiness of the marriage—the
only bit to come as no surprise to the family.
In widowhood, Celia had taken to working in a spare room at the top
of the house, which was kept locked. But now, with leisure to explore the

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Alicia Clifford

house (which had, after all, become theirs), her children discovered it had
been converted into a proper writer’s den with a good supportive chair
and an expensive word processor and built-in bookcases bursting with
reference books as well as numerous editions of her novels. “Did you
know Gran could use a computer?” Sarah had asked her daughter, Bud,
only to be told: “We set it up for her.” Sarah wanted to ask more questions
but was afraid of appearing foolish.
The room was extraordinarily messy. There was paper strewn everywhere, much of it yellow and crisp with age. There were letters and bills
and notebooks and diaries and newspapers. It seemed amazing that anything fi nished had emerged from such chaos, let alone critically acclaimed novels. “I must sort this out,” Celia had been heard to remark
worriedly only a month before, as if she sensed a dark presence stalking
her, just out of sight. She’d died suddenly in her bed, leaving the junk
untouched.
There came a soft tapping on the kitchen door and the sisters exchanged looks.
“Only me! I’m not interrupting, am I?”
Robert’s wife, Mel, had ostensibly come to make a lemon and honey
drink lest he strain his voice before the funeral. However, they guessed
she was longing to confide in them about her own problems. “Oh well . . .”
she kept saying, but with less and less optimism.
“Oh dear,” said Sarah when she’d gone. “It’s all so impossible, isn’t it?”
And that was the closest she came to saying that however much she and
Margaret might privately sympathize with their sister-in-law, their loyalty would always belong to their brother. But they’d no time for others’
troubles. Grief was working magic. Suddenly it seemed irrelevant that
one of them was happy and the other was not. For the first time in years,
they were getting on.
Margaret rose from her chair and opened the fridge to retrieve the
half-empty bottle. She paused for a moment, admiring their work.
It was living through the war, they understood, that had made their
mother so bad at throwing anything away. They’d removed a bowl of
malodorous stock, a soggy half cucumber corseted in plastic, a leatherlike
slab of cheese, some shriveled mushrooms, a carton of rotting cream, a
box of eggs date-stamped two months before, a few squares of nut choco-

The Affair

7

late with a white bloom on them and a cling-wrapped single portion of
some dark wet vegetable, possibly cabbage. Even the butter was off. After
they’d washed and disinfected the fridge thoroughly, they’d filled it with
food brought down from London: cartons of fresh sauces to go with
boxes of fresh pasta, French cheeses and salads and soft fruits and juices.
However, meals kept appearing on the doorstep, shyly delivered, usually
early in the morning. Only that day, they’d discovered a big Irish stew
and a chocolate cake on the porch, together with a note: “Please accept
this as a token of our esteem. P.S. No need to return casserole dish and
plate immediately. Jim and Nina Barton (‘Greenslade,’ just past the crossroads, first house on your right).”
“It seems a shame to waste this,” said Margaret, slicing herself a piece
of the cake, which was quite dry and crumbly with a very sweet soft topping, as if it had been made from a packet. The young people had rejected
it. They were extraordinarily fussy about food.
“Why do people always assume the bereaved are hungry?”
“It’s the only way they can think of to be helpful. I must say, it was
wonderful not having to cook for everyone this evening.”
The entire family had descended for the funeral. Sarah’s daughter,
Bud, and Robert’s son, Guy, the greatest of friends, were out walking and
talking in the dark lanes. Robert’s daughter, Miranda, who was newly
pregnant, had retired to bed. “So sad!” she kept murmuring to herself
because Celia would never meet her first great-grandchild now. The teenagers, Margaret’s Theo and Evie, were in an upstairs bedroom with Sarah’s son, Spud, who preferred their company though he was almost thirty
now. There was a crash from overhead, as if a piece of furniture had been
overturned, followed by barking and whining from Celia’s old dog, Oscar, who was alarmed but excited by the glut of company and still searching for her.
“So good she could stay in her own home till the end,” said Sarah, very
positively.
Margaret nodded. “With all her marbles.”
“Fit as a flea.”
“Apart from the knees and the eyes.”
“She was really really lucky!”
“So were we.”

8

Alicia Clifford

Sarah started sobbing. “Where is she?” she asked, like a frightened child.
Margaret shook her head, unable to speak.
“She’s still in us,” said Sarah, making an effort. “And our children.
And she’ll be in our children’s children, too—if there’s any world left for
them by then.” She forced a smile. “She’s in Miranda’s baby. Suddenly,
that makes sense. That’s true immortality.”
“You think?”
“Oh, far more than any books!”
But the reality was that outside a small circle of people their deaths
would pass unnoticed. Their only fame would be as a footnote to their
mother’s: “Celia Bayley is survived by a son and two daughters.”
Life had become extraordinarily dramatic. Thick bundles of letters
from strangers arrived every day. The telephone rang constantly with
requests and inquiries. Journalists turned up at the door, unannounced,
with camera crews. Only the day before, Robert had given an interview
to a local television station, and nobody watching his assured performance could have guessed that he hadn’t read a single one of his mother’s
books. But it upset them, nevertheless, when people outside the family
wrote about her with such authority. What did they know?
The kitchen door opened and Margaret’s husband, Charles, came in.
“Ah, cake!” he commented, sounding as if he was trying to make a joke but
managing merely to convey a kind of awkward disapproval.
“I only had a bit,” protested Margaret, instantly on the defensive.
Sarah wrapped her arms around herself, like making a private comparison.
“Where’s Whoopee?” she asked. Everyone in her family had excruciating nicknames. Her conventional, inhibited relatives suspected it was purely
to annoy them. Whoopee called Sarah Crinkle (though no one had ever
wanted to ask why) and his children Spud and Bud. The most Robert had
ventured (sounding pompous and embarrassed) was that it was ridiculous
to go through the performance of choosing pleasant names like Stephen
and Emily for your children and even holding expensive christening parties, when they were almost immediately going to be called Spud and Bud.
Plus it was bound to attract attention, he’d added, missing the point.
“I’ve just left your husband in the conservatory,” Charles responded,
sounding prickly and offended.

The Affair

9

Sarah guessed Whoopee had been up to his tricks again. Charles usually took care to avoid his brother-in-law’s company, but she and Margaret had made it clear they didn’t want to be interrupted and Robert was
absorbed in buffi ng up his address in the study and nobody was allowed
into the sitting room because it had been vacuumed and tidied for the
funeral. She couldn’t help smiling as she pictured the scene in the freezing
conservatory: wary Charles buttoned into his three-piece suit, her handsome, casually dressed husband seeming innocently curious as he sought
opinions on such matters as immigration and the wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq. If that had failed to provoke the response he was after, he’d probably
attacked parents who sent their children to private schools. Naughty
Whoopee, who knew exactly how to press the right (or wrong) buttons.
She asked: “What’s my darling husband doing, anyway?”
“He said he had to make a phone call.”
She was astonished. “Whoever to?”
A roar of laughter, almost immediately suppressed, came from the young
people upstairs. It was like hearing an audience start to applaud before a
piece of music had finished, and it sent a small shock wave through the gathering in the kitchen.
Bursting with people, yet painfully empty, the house had cast off the
melancholy that had so oppressed them on arrival. It was like a last feverish performance because, once the funeral was over, the clearing would
begin.
Singing started above: some kind of rap song. It seemed awfully inappropriate. Margaret recognized the overexcited voice of her daughter,
thirteen-year-old Evie, the baby of the group. Perhaps she should put a
stop to it? Then, in her emotional state, she fancied she heard her mother
protest very faintly, “Oh, let them!”
It was ridiculous, of course. Death was fi nal. So why did she have the
strangest feeling that her mother was still with them in spirit? Almost as
if there was something in this world— or this house—that held her back
from moving onto the next.

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