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Last minute read for the festive season

04 December 2012

Hannah and Matt are very happy together, living in London's cool East End with their two young children. Hannah has a job she loves as a beauty editor and Matt is always just about to break through as a songwriter.

But then events start to pull them apart, with Hannah certain they'd be much better off down in the English countryside with her family – and Matt's mum needing them with her, back in Sydney, 17,000 kilometres away.

Hannah's mother, Marguerite, mends broken china, but can she repair her damaged marriage? And Matt's vivacious young cousin, Ali, feels lost, looking for love in a strange city.

All of them have unsettling secrets and while some are better shared, others might be best left unspoken – the problem is, knowing which are which.

Many readers in Australia would know Maggie Alderson through having read her column in the Good Weekend in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers. She has also been a women’s magazine editor and is a fashion journalist. For many years Maggie lived in Australia. She returned to the UK some years ago now but often visits Australia and considers herself a London-born Australian author. Everything Changes But You allows her to bring her knowledge of both places and its people to bare on the world in which her characters move.
Observant and sharp like mature cheddar, her writing style and storylines make for fun summer reading. There is no doubt from her time working here in the Australian media, and the people she’s met and known, that you will recognize at least a few archetypes.

‘Are you sure you can leave all this behind?’ she asked him one last time, as they stood taking in the view across to the city from the balcony of their Potts Point apartment.

It was early evening and the bats were starting to fly east from the Botanic Gardens, but the sky over Sydney Harbour was still a vast intense blue. For a moment, Hannah thought to mention that the sky was never that colour in Hackney. And never that big. Most of the year the London sky sat on your head like a tight lid.

But they’d been over it all so many times she decided not to go into the details again. Their bags were packed, sitting ready in the hallway. Some large boxes had already gone on ahead as freight. They had an hour spare until they would need to leave for the airport and had come out for one last look at the city where they’d fallen in love. Then there would just be time for a final coffee at Fratelli Paradiso and that would be it. Goodbye Paradiso. Goodbye paradise.

As they stood looking at that view, so familiar yet suddenly as vivid again as the first time she’d seen it, three years before, when she’d come out to be beauty editor on the Australian edition of Glow magazine, Hannah knew they were both thinking the same thing.

There were the Bridge and the Opera House, so iconic, but as famil- iar to her now as her own front door. There was the CBD skyline, its unique shapes framed by a psychedelic Sydney sunset. Then her eyes panned down to the more personal landmarks. Harry’s Café de Wheels,
where they would sneak off for a pie on a Sunday afternoon. The old wharf, now a swanky hotel where they’d once spent a crazy night after partying in the bar downstairs. Boy Charlton Pool where Matt swam every day and the Art Gallery which had been her brain-cooling haven on unbearably humid February weekends.

Such a beautiful city, with a character and energy all its own. Smart, cheeky, warm, irreverent, sexy. Just like the man standing next to her. Her gorgeous Australian husband, whom she’d persuaded to leave all this for some one-bedroom dump in London, which they hadn’t even found yet.

‘Of course I can leave it,’ said Matt, putting his arm round her.
‘I already gave up Bondi and moved to Potts Point for you, didn’t I? Moving to London is just a more extreme version of that. It’s an amazing place and much better for me professionally. I know too many people here; I need a challenge.’
He pulled her closer and kissed the top of her head.

‘And anyway,’ he continued, ‘what does it matter where we are on this big blue planet, as long as we’re together?’

She smiled at him.

‘You always have the right words, don’t you, Matt?’ she said, running her hand gently down his cheek.

‘I have my moments,’ he said. ‘I’m just waiting for some other people in the music business to appreciate them a bit more.’
‘It’ll happen,’ she said and meant it.

Chapter One

The moment she heard the third crash, Marguerite knew that Anthony was visiting. The first two crashes Charlie was more than capable of making on his own. He might have tripped over a dog, or missed his step with the ice tray somewhere between the fridge and the sofa. But as soon as she heard the third one, which sounded as though it had involved broken glass, she knew Anthony was there. It was only a matter of time until they started singing.

Sighing deeply, she wove the needle through the worked part of her needlepoint and gazed out through the open French windows at her garden, now coming gloriously into its May bloom.

She knew she should turn on a lamp to save her eyes, but couldn’t bear to; every second of the exquisitely fading light was to be savoured. And now bloody Anthony had to come along and ruin it.

How had he slipped past her? She hadn’t heard a car on the gravel, so it was a mystery how he’d got round the house and into Charlie’s
‘granny flat’, as he called it, at the back, before she could intervene. The last time he’d tried to make one of his surprise visits she’d sent him packing before Charlie had even known he was there.

Now she thought it was probably already too late to step in. They were in full flow and going over to try and stop them at this stage would only lead to a big scene. Charlie was just so impossible when he was drunk. Such a charming gentleman when sober, Sir Charles
Berry-Downing QC, a silly childish idiot under the influence. It was almost as though he had to try and get it all out while he could, with the booze to blame afterwards.

She sighed again, remembering the first time she’d met Charlie’s new friend, Anthony, who she’d been hearing so much about: another bright apprentice barrister in neighbouring chambers.

One night, way back in the mid-1960s, before Hannah was born, she’d come home late from work at the museum to find the two of them in the drawing room of the flat in Cadogan Gardens, already well away, jackets and ties off, empty champagne bottles lying around. They’d been properly drunk all right, but such good company.

Anthony immediately filling a glass with champagne for her – and never letting it get empty. Stan Getz on the record player, Charlie danc- ing with a cigar clamped between his teeth, his arms around his own back, feeling himself up, slapping his own hand when it crept down to his bottom. So funny. Then more champagne and laughter and both of them taking turns to dance with her.

It had been binge-drinking, really, she understood that now, but it had seemed a joyful, carefree thing then, just laughing and dancing, being young and relishing life, until the champagne was all gone. Then Marguerite had made Welsh rarebit – amazing she hadn’t set the place on fire, more than a bit pie-eyed herself by then – and they’d sat around the kitchen table eating it and talking with great intensity about who knows what, but it had seemed very important at the time, until exhaustion set in.

Then Anthony had disappeared into the night, Charlie passed out on the sofa and Marguerite went to bed alone, for the first of so many times in her married life.
But those had been glorious days, when Charlie was still working his way up in the legal profession, with Anthony as his partner in crime, as he called him. The men who put the bar into barrister. They did drink far more than was good for them from the outset, but it had seemed innocent high jinks then, without any knock-over effects into their real lives, apart from the hangovers.

But gradually it had turned into this darker thing that made Charlie
so impossible until he was sober again. It had happened gradually over the years, getting much worse when he retired to the country, far younger than he should have. Until finally, five years before, she’d had ask to him to go and live over in the granny flat – or clear off altogether.

Should she have insisted on the latter? Had she been weak about that? For a moment she let her head, with its cloud of pale grey hair swept up in a French pleat, slump down – but only for a moment. Then she lifted it up sharply and after taking a deep breath in, pulled back her shoulders and set her expression. She hadn’t lived this long to be daunted by a pair of old drunks now.

It was a bore, though, she allowed herself to admit, as she closed and locked the French windows, then headed across the hall and along the kitchen passage to the back door.

She’d really thought that once she’d thrown Charlie out of the house – although only across the yard at the back to what had once been a coach house, admittedly – she wouldn’t have to endure this any more. He could binge-drink as much as he liked, as long as she didn’t have to witness it.

But Anthony’s presence always kicked things up several gears. After fifty years it was as though Charlie was still trying to prove he was as much of a player as his friend. She would happily have left them to it, but really didn’t feel like spending four hours in the waiting room at A & E, until Charlie could get something stitched up, or X-rayed. Not again.

‘Damned stupid child in an old man’s body,’ she muttered, taking her quilted gilet from a hook and shrugging it on.

Two black shapes came out of the darkness of the kitchen and rubbed their heads against her legs, as she slipped her feet out of house shoes and into gardening clogs.

‘Hello, you two,’ she said, fondling the Labradors’ silky black ears,
‘did I wake you up and it’s not even breakfast time? Well now you’re up, come and give me moral support while I sort out Daddy.’

But after setting out across the brick-laid yard, a sleepily wagging tail on either side of her, she came to an abrupt stop as a bottle sailed out of the brightly lit first-floor window of the granny flat and smashed 
on to the bricks just in front of her feet, the contents splashing her legs. The dogs immediately sprang to attention, barking at whatever had threatened them and their beloved pack leader.

‘Ssshhh, you two,’ said Marguerite, touching their heads reassuringly,
‘and sit. We don’t want those silly men to know we’re out here and
I don’t want any cut paws either.’

With the dogs reluctantly sitting and growling quietly, she turned on the torch she kept in her pocket and saw that the courtyard was strewn with broken glass and running with red wine.

She was quite relieved to realise the crashing sounds she’d heard earlier hadn’t involved soft human tissue impacting with hard objects, and looked down again at the pieces of shattered glass lying all around, her eyes automatically starting to organise them into groups. Which shards would fit neatly together, how you would start to make the broken bottles whole again.

Marguerite had been putting broken things perfectly back together – porcelain, china, terracotta – for even longer than she’d been picking up the pieces after Charlie’s drinking binges. Her mind flitted to her studio and the piece she was looking forward to getting started on in daylight. A very pretty Coalport teapot, spout and handle broken off, lid lost, just the kind of challenge she loved. Not one of the priceless artefacts she still sometimes worked on for museums, but a domestic object with special meaning to its owner.

But then a burst of loud laughter from the granny flat window snapped her back to the moment and realising she was standing in a place of some danger, she grabbed the dogs by their collars, and hastened back towards the house.
She made the threshold just in time to avoid the flight and cata- strophic landing of another bottle, followed by raucous cheers from the flat. After locking and bolting the door, she leaned back against it for a moment with her eyes closed, willing her heart rate to slow.

Then, after carefully checking eight paws for splinters of glass, she went up to bed and put her ear plugs in. A very happy black Labrador lying on either side of the bed next to her.

Maggie Alderson