James Lowe and Byron Hemmings attended Winston House School because it was private. There was another junior school that was closer but it was not private; it was for everyone. The children who went there came from the council estate on Digby Road. They flicked orange peels and cigarette butts at the caps of the Winston House boys from the top windows of the bus. The Winston House boys did not travel on the bus. They had lifts with their mothers because they had so far to travel.
The future for the Winston House boys was mapped out. Theirs was a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The following year, they would take the Common Entrance exam for the college. The cleverest boys would win scholarships, and at thirteen they would board. They would speak with the right accent and learn the right things and meet the right people. After that it would be Oxford or Cambridge. James's parents were thinking St. Peter's; Byron's were thinking Oriel. They would pursue careers in law or the City, the Church or the armed forces, like their fathers. One day they would have private rooms in London and large houses in the country where they would spend weekends with their wives and children.
It was the beginning of June in 1972. A trim of morning light slid beneath Byron's blue curtains and picked out his neatly ordered possessions. There were his Look and Learn annuals, his stamp album, his torch, his new Abracadabra magic box, and the biology set with its own magnifying glass that he had received for Christmas. His school uniform had been washed and pressed by his mother the night before and was arranged in a flattened boy shape on a chair. Byron checked both his watch and his alarm clock. The second hands were moving steadily. Crossing the hall in silence, he eased open the door of his mother's room and took up his place on the edge of her bed.
She lay very still. Her hair was a gold frill on the pillow and her face trembled with each breath as if she were made of water. Through her skin he could see the purple of her veins. Byron's hands were soft and plump like the flesh of a peach, but James already had veins, faint threads that ran from his knuckles and would one day become ridges like a man's.
At half past six, the alarm clock rang into the silence and his mother's eyes flashed open, a shimmer of blue.
"I'm worried," said Byron.
"It isn't time again?" She reached for her glass and her pill and took a sip of water.
"Suppose they are going to add the extra seconds today?"
"Is James worried too?"
"He seems to have forgotten."
She wiped her mouth and he saw that she was smiling. Two dimples had appeared like tiny punctures in her cheeks. "We've been through this. We keep doing it. When they add the seconds, they'll say something about it first in The Times. They'll talk about it on Nationwide."
"It's giving me a headache," he said.
"When it happens you won't notice. Two seconds are nothing."
Byron felt his blood heat. He almost stood but sat back again. "That's what nobody realizes. Two seconds are huge. It's the difference between something happening and something not happening. You could take one step too many and fall over the edge of a cliff. It's very dangerous." The words came out in a rush.
She gazed back at him with her face crumpled the way it got when she was trying to work out a sum. "We really must get up," she said.
His mother pulled back the curtains at the bay window and stared out. A summer mist was pouring in from Cranham Moor, so thick that the hills beyond the garden looked in danger of being washed away. She glanced at her wrist.
"Twenty-four minutes to seven," she said, as if she were informing her watch of the correct time. Lifting her pink dressing gown from its hook, she went to wake Lucy.
When Byron pictured the inside of his mother's head, he imagined a series of tiny inlaid drawers with jeweled handles so delicate that his fingers would struggle to get a grip. The other mothers were not like her. They wore crocheted tank tops and layered skirts and some of them even had the new wedge shoes. Byron's father preferred his wife to dress more formally. With her slim skirts and pointy heels, her matching handbag and her notebook, Diana made other women look both oversize and underprepared. Andrea Lowe, James's mother, towered over Diana Hemmings like a dark-haired giant. Diana's notebook contained articles she had snipped and glued from the pages of Good Housekeeping and Family Circle. She wrote down birthdays she had to remember, important dates for the school term, as well as recipes, needlecraft instructions, planting ideas, hairstyling tips, and words she had not heard before. Her notebook bulged with suggestions for improvement: "22 new hairdos to make you even prettier this summer." "Tissue paper gifts for every occasion." "Cooking with offal." "i before e except after c."
"Elle est la plus belle mere," James sometimes said. And when he did he blushed and fell silent, as if in contemplation of something sacred.
Byron dressed in his gray flannel shorts and summer T-shirt. His school shirt was almost new, and he had to tug to fasten the buttons. Having secured his knee-length socks with homemade garters, he headed downstairs. The wood-paneled walls shone dark as conkers.
Excerpted from Perfect by Rachel Joyce Copyright 2014 by Rachel Joyce. Excerpted by permission of Random House, 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.