The Widow NPR coverage of The Widow by Fiona Barton. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo The Widow

The Widow

by Fiona Barton

Hardcover, 324 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $26 |

purchase

Buy Featured Book

Title
The Widow
Author
Fiona Barton

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

NPR Summary

After Jean's husband dies, the community wants to know the real truth about the crime he was suspected of — but Jean has secrets of her own.

Read an excerpt of this book

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Widow

 

ONE
The Widow
Wednesday, June 9, 2010


I can hear the sound of her crunching up the path. Heavy-footed in high heels. She’s almost at the door, hesitating and smoothing her hair out of her face. Nice outfit: jacket with big buttons, decent dress underneath, and glasses perched on her head. Not a Jehovah’s Witness or from the Labour party. Must be a reporter, but not the usual. She’s my second one today—fourth this week, and it’s only Wednesday. I bet she says, “I’m sorry to bother you at such a difficult time.” They all say that and put on that stupid face. Like they care.

I’m going to wait to see if she rings twice. The man this morning didn’t. Some are obviously bored to death with trying. They leave as soon as they take their finger off the bell, marching back down the path as fast as they can, into their cars and away. They can tell their bosses they knocked on the door but I wasn’t there. Pathetic.

She rings twice. Then knocks loudly in that rap-rap-rappity-rap way. Like a policeman. She sees me looking through the gap at the side of my sheer curtains and smiles this big smile. A Hollywood smile, my mum used to say. Then she knocks again.

When I open the door, she hands me the bottle of milk from the doorstep and says, “You don’t want to leave that out. It’ll spoil. Shall I come in? Have you got the kettle on?”

I can’t breathe, let alone speak. She smiles again, head on one side. “I’m Kate,” she says. “Kate Waters, a reporter from the Daily Post.”

“I’m,” I start, suddenly realizing she hasn’t asked.

“I know who you are, Mrs. Taylor,” she says. Unspoken are the words: “You are the story.”

“Let’s not stand out here,” she says. And as she talks, somehow, she’s come in.

I feel too stunned by the turn of events to speak, and she takes my silence as permission to go into the kitchen with the bottle of milk and make me a cup of tea. I follow her in—it’s not a big kitchen and we’re in a bit of a squeeze as she bustles about filling the kettle and opening all my cupboards, looking for cups and sugar. I just stand there, letting it all happen.

She’s chatting about the kitchen. “What a lovely fresh-looking room—I wish mine looked like this. Did you put a new kitchen in?”

It feels like I’m talking to a friend. It isn’t how I thought it would be, talking to a reporter. I thought it would be like being questioned by the police. Thought it would be an ordeal, an interrogation. That’s what my husband, Glen, said. But it isn’t, somehow.

I say, “Yes. We chose white doors and red handles because it looked so clean.” I’m standing in my house discussing kitchens with a reporter. Glen would’ve had a fit.

She says, “Through here, is it?” and I open the door to the living room.

I’m not sure if I want her here or not—not sure how I feel. It doesn’t feel right to protest now—she’s just sitting and chatting with a cup of tea in her hand. It’s funny—I’m quite enjoying the attention. I get a bit lonely inside this house now that Glen is gone.

And she seems to be in charge of things. It’s quite nice really, to have someone in charge of me again. I was beginning to panic that I’d have to cope with everything on my own, but Kate Waters is saying she’ll sort everything out.

All I have to do is tell her about my life, she says.

My life? She doesn’t really want to know about me. She hasn’t walked up my path to hear about Jean Taylor. She wants to know the truth about him. About Glen. My husband.

You see, my husband died last week. Knocked down by a bus just outside Sainsbury’s. He was there one minute, giving me grief about what sort of cereal I should’ve bought, and the next, dead on the road. Head injuries, they said. Dead, anyway. I just stood there and looked at him, lying there. People were running around finding blankets, and there was a bit of blood on the pavement. Not much blood, though. He would’ve been glad. He didn’t like any sort of mess.

Everyone was very kind and trying to stop me from seeing his body, but I couldn’t tell them I was glad he was gone. No more of his nonsense.

TWO
The Widow
Wednesday, June 9, 2010


The police came to the hospital, of course. Even DI Bob Sparkes turned up at the accident and emergency department to talk about Glen.

I said nothing to him or any of the others. Told them there was nothing to say. I was too upset to talk. Cried a bit.

DI Bob Sparkes has been a part of my life for so long—more than three years it is now—but I think perhaps he will disappear with you, Glen.

I don’t say any of this to Kate Waters. She’s in the other armchair in the sitting room, nursing her mug of tea and jiggling her foot.

“Jean,” she says—no more “Mrs. Taylor,” I notice—“this last week must have been terrible for you. And after all you’ve already been through.” I say nothing, just stare at my lap. She has no idea what I’ve been through. No one has really. I’ve never been able to tell anyone. Glen said that was best.

We wait in silence, and then she tries a different tack. She stands up and picks up a photo of us from the mantelpiece—both of us laughing at something.

“You look so young,” she says. “Was this before you got married?”

I nod.

“Did you know each other a long time before that? Did you meet at school?”

“No, not at school. We met at a bus stop,” I tell her. “He was very good-looking, and he made me laugh. I was seventeen, an apprentice at a hairdresser’s in Greenwich, and he worked in a bank. He was a bit older and wore a suit and good shoes. He was different.”

I’m making it sound like some romantic novel, and Kate Waters is lapping it up, scribbling in her notebook, peering at me over those little glasses and nodding as if she understands. She isn’t fooling me.

Actually, Glen didn’t seem the romantic sort at first. Our courtship was mainly in the dark—the cinema, the backseat of his Escort, the park—and there wasn’t much time for talking. But I remember the first time he told me he loved me. I prickled all over, like I could feel every inch of my skin. I felt alive for the first time in my life. I told him I loved him, too. Desperately. That I couldn’t eat or sleep for thinking about him.

My mum said it was a “fascination” on my part when I mooned around the house. I wasn’t sure what it meant, “fascination,” but I wanted to be with Glen all the time, and back then he said he felt the same. I think Mum was a bit jealous. She relied on me.

“She relies on you too much, Jeanie,” Glen said. “Not healthy to be going everywhere with your daughter.”

I tried to explain about Mum being frightened of going out on her own, but Glen said she was being selfish.

He was so protective, picking a seat for me in the pub away from the bar—“Don’t want it to be too noisy for you”— and ordering for me at restaurants so I tasted new things—“You’ll love this, Jeanie. Just try it.” So I did, and sometimes the new things were lovely. And if they weren’t, I didn’t say anything in case I hurt his feelings. He would go quiet if I went against him. I hated that. Felt I’d disappointed him.

I’d never been out with someone like Glen, someone who knew what they wanted in life. The other boys were just that, boys.

Two years later, when Glen proposed, he didn’t go down on one knee. He held me very close and said, “You belong to me, Jeanie. We belong together . . . Let’s get married.”

He’d won Mum over by then, anyway, He’d come with flowers—“a little something for the other woman in my life,” he’d say to make her giggle—and he’d talk to her about Coronation Street or the royal family, and Mum loved it. She said I was a lucky girl. That he’d brought me out of myself. Would make something of me. She could see he’d take care of me. And he did.

“What was he like then?” Kate Waters asks, leaning forward to encourage me. Then. She means before all the bad stuff.

“Oh, he was a lovely man. Very lovey-dovey, couldn’t do enough for me,” I say. “Always bringing me flowers and presents. Said I was the one. I was blown over by it all. I was only seventeen.”

She loves it. Writes it all down in a funny scrawl and looks up. I’m trying not to laugh. I feel the hysteria rising, but it comes out like a sob, and she reaches her hand over to touch my arm.

“Don’t be upset,” she says. “It’s all over now.”

And it is. No more police, no more Glen. No more of his nonsense.

I can’t quite remember when I started calling it that. It had begun long before I could name it. I was too busy making our marriage perfect, beginning with the wedding at Charlton House.

My mum and dad thought I was too young at nineteen, but we persuaded them. Well, Glen did, really. He was so determined, so devoted to me, and in the end Dad said yes, and we celebrated with a bottle of Lambrusco.

They paid a fortune for the wedding because I was their only one, and I spent my whole time looking at pictures in bridal magazines with Mum and dreaming of my big day. My big day. How I clung to that and filled my life with it. Glen never interfered.

“That’s your department,” he’d say, and laugh.

He made it sound like he had a department, too. I thought it was probably his job; he was the main breadwinner, he said. “I know it sounds old-fashioned, Jeanie, but I want to look after you. You’re still very young, and we’ve got everything in front of us.”

He always had big ideas, and they sounded so exciting when he talked about them. He was going to be the manager of the branch, then leave to start his own business, be his own boss and make lots of money. I could see him in a posh suit with a secretary and a big car. And me, I was going to be there for him. “Never change, Jeanie. I love you just the way you are,” he’d say.

So we bought number 12 and moved in after the wedding. We’re still here all these years later.

The house had a front garden, but we graveled over “to save on cutting the grass,” Glen said. I quite liked the grass, but Glen liked things neat. It was hard at the beginning, when we first moved in together, because I was always a bit untidy. Mum was always finding dirty plates and odd socks in the fluff under my bed at home. Glen would’ve died if he’d looked.

I can see him now, clenching his teeth and his eyes going all narrow when he caught me brushing crumbs off the table onto the floor with my hand after we had tea one night, early on. Didn’t even know I was doing it—must’ve done it a hundred times without thinking, but I never did it again. He was good for me in that way, taught me how to do things right so the house was nice. He liked it nice.

In the early days Glen told me all about his job in the bank—the responsibilities he had, how the juniors relied on him, the jokes the staff played on one another, the boss he couldn’t stand—“Thinks he’s better than everyone, Jeanie”—and the people he worked with. Joy and Liz in the back office; Scott, one of the counter staff, who had terrible skin and blushed over everything; May, the trainee who kept making mistakes. I loved listening to him, loved hearing about his world.

I suppose I did tell him about my work, but we seemed to drift back to the bank quite quickly.

“Hairdressing isn’t the most exciting job,” he’d say, “but you do it very well, Jeanie. I’m very proud of you.”

He was trying to make me feel better about myself, he told me. And he did. It felt so safe being loved by Glen.

Kate Waters is looking at me, doing that thing with her head again. She’s good. I’ll give her that. I’ve never spoken to a journalist before, apart from telling them to go away, never mind let one in the house. They’ve been coming to the door for years on and off, and no one has got inside until today. Glen saw to that.

But he’s not here now. And Kate Waters seems different. She’s told me she feels “a real connection” with me. Says she feels like we’ve known each other for ages. And I know what she means.

“His death must’ve come as a terrible shock,” she says, giving my arm another squeeze. I nod dumbly.

I can’t tell her how I started lying awake, wishing Glen were dead. Well, not dead exactly. I didn’t want him to be in any pain or suffer or anything. I just wanted him not to be there anymore. I would fantasize about the moment when I’d get the call from a police officer.

“Mrs. Taylor,” the deep voice would say, “I’m so sorry, but I’ve got bad news.” The anticipation of the next bit used to make me almost giggle.

“Mrs. Taylor, I’m afraid your husband has been killed in an accident.”

I then saw myself—really saw myself—sobbing and picking up the phone to ring his mum and tell her. “Mary,” I’d say, “I’m so sorry. I’ve got some bad news. It’s Glen. He’s dead.

I can hear the shock in her gasp. I can feel her grief. I can feel the sympathy of friends at my loss, gathering my family around me. Then the secret thrill.

Me, the grieving widow. Don’t make me laugh.

Of course, when it really happened, it didn’t feel nearly as real. For a moment his mum sounded almost as relieved as me that it was all over; then she put the phone down, weeping for her boy. And there were no friends to tell and just a handful of family to gather around me.

Kate Waters chirps up about needing the loo and making another cup of tea, and I let her get on with it, giving her my mug and showing her the downstairs bathroom. When she’s gone, I look around the room quickly, making sure there’s nothing of Glen’s out. No souvenirs for her to steal. Glen warned me. He told me stories about the press. I hear the toilet flush, and she eventually reappears with a tray and starts again about what a remarkable woman I must be, so loyal.

I keep looking at the wedding picture on the wall above the gas fire. We look so young, we could’ve been dressing up in our parents’ clothes. Kate Waters sees me looking and stands to take the photo off the wall.

She perches on the arm of my chair, and we look at it together. September 6, 1989. The day we tied the knot. I don’t know why, but I start to cry, my first real tears since Glen died. Kate Waters puts an arm around me.

THREE
The Reporter
Wednesday, June 9, 2010
 

Kate Waters shifted in her chair. She shouldn’t have had that cup of coffee earlier—what with that and the tea, her bladder was sending distress signals and she might have to leave Jean Taylor alone with her thoughts. Not a good idea at this stage of the game, especially as Jean had gone a bit quiet, sipping her tea and gazing into the distance. Kate was desperate not to pause the moment and damage the rapport she was building with her. They were at a very delicate stage. Lose eye contact and the whole mood could change.

Her husband, Steve, had once compared her job to stalking an animal. He’d had a glass too many of Rioja and was showing off at a dinner party.

“She gets closer and closer, feeding them little bits of kindness and humor, a hint of money to come, their chance to give their side of the story, until they are eating out of the palm of her hand. It’s a real art,” he’d told the guests around their dining room table.

They were his colleagues from the oncology department, and Kate had sat, doing her professional smile and murmuring, “Come on, darling, you know me better than that,” as the guests laughed nervously and sipped their wine. She’d been furious during the washing up, sloshing the suds over the floor as she threw pans into the sink, but Steve had put his arms around her and kissed her into a reconciliation.

“You know how much I admire you, Katie,” he’d said. “You’re brilliant at what you do.”

She’d kissed him back, but he was right. It was sometimes a game or a flirtatious dance, to make an instant connection with a suspicious—even hostile—stranger. She loved it. Loved the adrenaline rush of getting to the doorstep first, ahead of the pack, ringing the bell and hearing the sounds of life inside the house, seeing the light change in the frosted glass as the person approached and then, as the door opened, going into full performance mode.

Reporters had different techniques on the doorstep: One friend she’d trained with called it his “last puppy in the basket” look to get sympathy; another always blamed her news editor for making her knock on the door again; and one had once stuffed a pillow up her jumper to pretend she was pregnant and asked to use the loo to get in.

Not Kate’s style. She had her own rules: Always smile; never stand too close to the door; don’t start with an apology; and try to distract from the fact that you’re after a story. She’d used the bottle‑of‑milk thing before, but milkmen were a dying breed. She was very pleased with herself for getting through this door with such apparent ease.

In truth, she hadn’t wanted to come in the first place. She needed to go into the office to finish her expenses forms before her credit card bill came through and cleaned out her bank account. But her news editor was having none of it.

“Go and knock on the widow’s door—it’s on your way in,” Terry Deacon shouted down the phone above the radio news headlines blaring out beside him. “Never know. Today might be your lucky day.”

Kate had sighed. She knew immediately who Terry meant. There was only one widow everyone wanted to interview that week, but she also knew it was a well-trodden path. Three of her colleagues at the Post had already tried—and she was sure she must be the last reporter in the country to knock on this particular door.

Almost.

As she reached the turn onto Jean Taylor’s road, she automatically checked for other press and immediately spotted the man from The Times, standing by a car. Boring tie, elbow patches, and a side part. Classic. She edged her car forward as the traffic crawled along the main road but kept one eye on the enemy. She’d have to go around the block again and hope he’d gone by the time she got back.

“Bloody hell,” she muttered, signaling left and swinging down a side street to park.

Fifteen minutes and a flick through the dailies later, Kate put her seat belt back on and restarted the car. Her phone rang, and she dug deep into her bag to find it. Fishing it out, she saw Bob Sparkes’s name on the display and turned off the engine.

“Hello, Bob. How are you? What’s happening?”

Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes wanted something; that was obvious. He wasn’t the sort of bloke to ring for a chat, and she bet herself the call would last less than sixty seconds.

“Hi, Kate. Good, thanks. Quite busy. You know what it’s like. Got a couple of cases on the go but nothing interesting.

“Look, Kate, just wondered if you were still working on the Glen Taylor case.”

“Christ, Bob, have you got me on CCTV or something? I’m just about to go and knock on Jean Taylor’s door.”

Sparkes laughed. “Don’t worry—you’re not on the surveillance list as far as I know.”

“Anything I should know before I see her?” Kate asked. “Anything new since Glen Taylor died?”

“No, not really.” She could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Wondered if you’d heard anything. Anyway, I’d appreciate a heads‑up if Jean says anything.”

“I’ll give you a call afterward,” she said. “But she’ll probably slam the door in my face. That’s what she’s done to all the rest of the reporters.”

“Okay, speak later.”

End of. She looked at the phone and smiled. Forty-one seconds. A new record. She must tease him about it next time she saw him.

Five minutes later she’d cruised down the Taylors’ newly media-free street and walked up the path.

Now she needed the story.

Oh, for God’s sake, how can I concentrate? she thought, digging her nails into her hand to distract herself. No, no good.

“Sorry, Jean, but would it be all right to use your loo?” she said, smiling apologetically. “Tea, it goes straight through you, doesn’t it? I’ll make us another drink if you like.”

Jean nodded and rose from her seat to guide the way. “It’s through here,” she said, standing aside so Kate could edge past into the peachy haven of the downstairs loo.

Washing her hands with the perfumed guest soap, Kate looked up and caught her expression in the mirror. She looked a bit tired, she thought, smoothing her unruly hair down and tapping the bags under her eyes with her fingertips, as instructed by the girl who did her occasional facials.

In the kitchen on her own, she idly read the notes and magnets on the fridge while she waited for the kettle to boil. Shopping lists and holiday souvenirs—nothing much for her here. A photo of the Taylors taken in a beach restaurant showed the couple smiling and raising their glasses to the camera. Glen Taylor, all tousled dark hair and holiday smile, and Jean, dark blond hair done for the occasion and tucked neatly behind her ears, going-out makeup slightly smudged by the heat, and that sideways glance at her husband.

Adoring or in awe? Kate wondered.

The last couple of years had clearly taken their toll on the woman in the photo. Jean was sitting waiting for her in cargo pants, baggy T‑shirt, and cardigan, her hair escaping from a stubby ponytail. Steve was always teasing her about how she noticed the little things, but it was part of the job. “I’m a trained observer,” she’d joked, and delighted in pointing out tiny, telling details. She’d immediately spotted the damage to Jean’s rough and cracked hands—hairdresser’s hands, she’d thought to herself—and the skin around the nails, frayed from the widow’s nervous chewing.

The lines around her eyes told their own story.

Kate took her phone out and photographed the picture. She noted that everything in the kitchen was immaculate, nothing like her own, where her teenage sons would, no doubt, have left a trail of detritus from their abandoned breakfast—stained coffee mugs, souring milk, half-eaten toast, a lidless jar of jam with a knife sticking out of it. And the obligatory filthy football kit festering on the floor.

The kettle—and thoughts of home—clicked off, and she made the tea and carried the mugs through on a tray.

Jean was staring into space, her teeth working on her thumb.

“That’s better,” Kate said, plonking herself down. “Sorry about that. Now, where were we?”

She had to admit, she was beginning to worry. She’d spent nearly an hour with Jean Taylor and had a notebook full of bits and pieces about her childhood, early married life. But that was all. Every time she edged a bit closer to the story, Jean would change the subject to something safe. They’d had a long discussion about the challenges of bringing up kids at one point, and then there had been a brief interlude when Kate had finally taken one of the insistent calls from the office.

Terry was beside himself when he heard where Kate was. “Brilliant,” he yelled down the phone. “Well done—what’s she saying? When can you file?”

Under the widow’s watchful eyes, Kate muttered: “Hang on a minute, Terry. The reception isn’t very good here,” and slipped into the back garden, signaling mock irritation to Jean with a weary shake of her head.

“For God’s sake, Terry, I was sitting next to her. I can’t really talk now,” she hissed. “It’s a bit slow, to be honest, but I think she’s beginning to trust me. Let me get on with it.”

“Have you got her under contract yet?” Terry asked. “Get her under contract, and then we can take our time getting the full works.”

“I don’t want to scare her off by pushing things, Terry. I’ll do my level best. Speak later.”

Kate pressed the off button on the phone with feeling and considered her next move. Maybe she just needed to mention the money straightaway. She’d done the tea and sympathy, and now she had to stop dancing around the edge.

After all, Jean might be hard up now that her husband was dead.

He wasn’t there to provide for her anymore. Or to stop her from talking.