As Valentine’s Day draws closer we’re getting in the mood by releasing an exclusive extract from the eagerly-anticipated new novel from Jojo Moyes. An unconventional contemporary romance, you can pick up this typically compelling tale from Jojo from February 27th, when it is finally sees a release in hardback and all good eBook formats.
With two jobs and two children, Jess Thomas does her best day after day. But it’s hard on your own. And sometimes you take risks you shouldn’t. Because you have to.
Into their lives comes Ed Nicholls, a man whose life is in chaos, and who is running from a deeply uncertain future. But he has time on his hands. He knows what it’s like to be lonely. And he wants to help . . .
The irony did not escape Jessica Thomas that she lost the best job she’d ever had because of a diamond. Not because she stole it but because she didn’t.
Jess and Nathalie had cleaned Mr and Mrs Ritter’s holiday home for almost three years, since the Beachfront Holiday Park was part-paradise, part building-site. Back when the developers promised local families access to the swimming pool, and assured everyone that a large upmarket development would bring benefits to their little seaside town, instead of sucking out what remained of its life. The Ritters were standard occupants. They came down from London most weekends with their children. Mrs Ritter generally stayed on throughout the holidays while her husband stayed in the city, they spent most of their time on the manicured stretch of the beach, and visited the town only to fill up their people-carrier with diesel or to top up their groceries at the retail park. Jess and Nathalie cleaned their spacious, Farrow-&-Ball-painted four-bedroom home twice a week when they were there, and once when they weren’t.
It was almost Easter and, judging by the empty juice cartons and wet towels, the Ritters were in residence. Nathalie was cleaning the en-suite bathroom and Jess was changing the beds, humming along to the radio that they carried between jobs. As she whipped off the duvet cover she heard a sound like the crack of a high velocity air rifle. Living where she did, she knew this sound well. She could have bet money that there were no air rifles at Beachfront.
Her gaze was caught by something glittering on the floor. She stooped by the window and picked up a diamond earring between her thumb and forefinger. She held it up to the light, then walked next door to where Nathalie was on her knees, scrubbing the bath, lines of dark sweat like a brass-rubbing on her bra strap. It had been a long morning.
Nathalie climbed to her feet, squinting. ‘What is it?’
‘Diamond. It fell out of the bed linen.’
‘That can’t be real. Look at the size of it.’
They gazed at the earring, as Jess rotated it between finger and thumb. ‘Lisa Ritter isn’t going to have fake diamonds. Not with their money. Can’t diamonds cut glass?’ She ran it speculatively down the edge of the window.
‘Great idea, Jess. You just keep going until her window falls out.’ Nathalie stood up, rinsed her cloth under the tap.
‘More importantly, where’s the other one?’
They shook out the bed linen, peered under the bed, sifted through the deep pile of the beige carpet on their hands and knees, like police at a murder scene. Finally Jess checked her watch. They looked at each other and sighed.
One earring. Your basic nightmare.
Things they had found while cleaning people’s houses:
An escaped guinea pig
A long-lost wedding ring (they were given a box of chocolates for this)
A signed photograph of Cliff Richard (no chocolates; owner denied all knowledge)
Money. Not just small change, but a whole turquoise wallet stuffed full of fifties. It had fallen behind a chest of drawers. When Jess handed it over to the client ‒ a Mrs Linder, who rented number two Beachfront for three months over the summer – she had looked at it in mild surprise. ‘I was wondering where that had gone,’ she said, and pocketed it without a backward look, as you would a mislaid hair slide or a remote control.
Guinea pigs aside, it was not as great as you might think, turning up valuables. One earring or a pile of loose notes, and clients would give you that vague, sideways look, the flicker in their eyes that meant they were wondering if you had pocketed the rest. Mr Ritter would definitely assume they had taken the other earring. He was the kind of man who made them feel guilty just for being in his house. That was on the days he deigned to acknowledge they were there.
‘So what do we do?’
Nathalie was bundling up the duvet cover, ready for the laundry. ‘Leave it on the side. We’ll just write a note saying we couldn’t find the other.’ They usually left a note or two out during their rounds, saying what they’d done. Or a polite reminder that they were owed money. ‘It’s the truth.’
‘Should we say we shook out all the bedding?’
‘Whatever. I just don’t want her thinking we took it.’
Jess finished writing, and placed the earring carefully on the piece of paper. ‘Mrs Ritter might already have the other one. She might be glad we found it.’
Nathalie made the face that said Jess would look on the bright side of a nuclear apocalypse. ‘Personally, I think I would have known if there was a diamond the size of an eyeball in my bed.’ She dumped the dirty laundry outside the bedroom door. ‘Right. You vacuum the hall, and I’ll change the kids’ beds. If we get a wiggle on, we can be at the Gordons’ by half eleven.’
Nathalie Benson and Jessica Thomas had cleaned together every weekday for four years, the somewhat uninspired moniker Benson & Thomas Cleaning Services on the side of their little white van. Nathalie had stencilled ‘A Bit Dirty? Can we Help?’ underneath for two whole months until Jess pointed out that half the calls they were getting were nothing to do with cleaning.
Nearly all their jobs were in Beachfront now. Hardly anybody in the town had the money ‒ or the inclination ‒ to hire a cleaner, except for the GPs, the solicitor and the odd client like Mrs Humphrey, whose arthritis stopped her doing it herself. She was one of those old women who believed cleanliness was next to godliness, her life’s worth previously measured in starched curtains and a freshly scrubbed front step. Sometimes they suspected she’d saved up a whole forty-eight hours of conversation just for the hour that they were there. Wednesdays they did Mrs Humphrey after their Beachfront jobs, the Ritters and the Gordons, and, if they were lucky, whichever of the holiday cottages the other cleaning firms had failed to turn up for.
Jess was lugging the vacuum-cleaner along the hall when the front door opened. Mrs Ritter called up the stairs, ‘Is that you, girls?’
She was the kind of woman to whom all women, even those collecting their pensions, were ‘girls’. ‘I had the best girls’ night out on Saturday,’ she would say, her eyes rolling with mischief. Or, ‘So off I went, to the little girls’ room . . .’ but they liked her. She was always cheerful, and wore her money lightly. And she never treated them like cleaners.
Nathalie and Jess exchanged looks. It had been a long morning, they’d done two ovens already (what kind of people roasted pork on holiday?), and Mrs Humphrey’s tea tended to be the colour and consistency of stair varnish.
Ten minutes later they were sitting round the kitchen table, while Lisa Ritter pushed a plate of biscuits towards them.‘Go on, have one. If you eat them, I can’t be tempted.’ She squeezed a non-existent roll of fat over her waistband. Nathalie and Jess could never agree if she’d had work. She was the kind of woman who floated somewhere in the carefully maintained hinterlands between forty and sixty-something. Her tinted chestnut hair was set in soft waves, she played tennis three times a week, did Pilates with a private instructor, and Nathalie knew someone at the local salon, who said that she was waxed to within an inch of her life every four weeks.
‘How’s your Martin?’
‘Still alive. To the best of my knowledge.’
‘Oh, yes.’ She nodded, remembering. ‘You did tell me. Finding himself, was it?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘You’d have thought he might have succeeded by now. There was enough of him.’ She paused, and gave Jess a conspiratorial smile. ‘Your little girl still got her head stuck in a maths book?’
‘Oh, they’re good children, yours. Some of these mothers round here, I swear they don’t know what their lot are doing from dawn till dusk. That Jason Fisher and his friends were throwing eggs at Dennis Grover’s windows the other day. Eggs!’ It was hard to tell from her voice whether she was more shocked at the act of aggression or the waste of good food.
She was in the middle of a story about her manicurist and a small, incontinent dog, breaking off repeatedly as she was overcome with laughter, when Nathalie held up her phone.‘Mrs Humphrey’s tried to call,’ she said, pushing back her chair. ‘We’d better get off.’ She slid off the stool and made her way out to the hallway to fetch the cleaning crate.
‘Well, the place looks lovely. Thank you both so much.’ Mrs Ritter reached up a hand and patted her hair into place, briefly lost in thought. ‘Oh, before you go, Jess, you wouldn’t give me a hand with something, would you?’
Most of the clients knew Jess was good at practical things. There was barely a day where somebody didn’t want help with some grouting, or picture-hanging, jobs they swore would only take five minutes. Jess didn’t mind. ‘If it’s a big job though I may need to come back,’ she said. And charge, she added silently. ‘Oh, no,’ Lisa Ritter said, walking towards the back door. ‘I just need someone to help me with my suitcase. I cricked my back on the plane, and I need someone to get it up the steps for me.’
‘I went to see my sister in Majorca. Well, now the children are at uni, I’ve got all this time to myself, haven’t I? I thought it would be nice to have a few days’ mini-break. I left Paul to
it, bless him.’
‘So when did you get back?’
She looked at Jess blankly. ‘You saw me! Just now!’
It took a couple of seconds to hit. And it was a good job that she was already headed outside into the sun because Jess felt the colour actually drain from her face.
That was the problem with cleaning. It was a good job on the one hand ‒ if you didn’t mind other people’s stains and pulling lumps of hair out of other people’s plugholes (she didn’t, funnily enough). Jess didn’t even mind that most of those who rented holiday homes seemed to feel obliged to live like pigs for a week, leaving mess they wouldn’t sit in at home because they knew there was a cleaner coming. You could work for yourself, organise your own hours, pick and choose your clients when times were good.
The downside, weirdly, was not the crappy clients (and there always was at least one crappy client), or the dirt, or that scrubbing someone else’s toilet somehow left you feeling like you were one step lower on a ladder than you had planned to be. It wasn’t even the constant threat from other companies, the leaflets through your clients’ doors and the promises of cheaper by the hour. It was that you ended up finding out much more about other people’s lives than you really wanted to.
Jess could have told you about Mrs Eldridge’s secret shopping habit: the designer shoe receipts she stuffed into the bathroom bin, and the bags of unworn clothes in her wardrobe, the tags still firmly attached. She could tell you that Lena Thompson had been trying for a baby for four years, and used two pregnancy tests a month (rumour had it she left her tights on). She could tell you that Mr Mitchell in the big house behind the church earned a six-figure salary (he left his payslips on the hall table; Nathalie swore he did it deliberately) and that his daughter smoked secretly in the bathroom and lined up all her cigarette butts in neat rows on the window ledge.
If she was that way inclined, she could have pointed outthe women who went out looking immaculate, hair faultless, nails polished, lightly spritzed with expensive scent, who thought nothing of leaving soiled knickers in full view on the floor, or the teenage boys whose stiff towels she didn’t want to pick up without a pair of tongs. There were the couples who spent every night in separate beds, the wives insisting brightly when they asked her to change the spare-room sheets that they’d had an ‘awful lot of guests lately’, the lavatories that required a gas mask and a HAZCHEM warning. And then you got a nice client like Lisa Ritter and popped over to vacuum her floors and came home with a whole load of knowledge you could really have done without.
Jess watched Nathalie walking outside, the cleaning crate under her arm, and saw with a terrible clarity what was going to happen next. She saw the bed upstairs, immaculately made with clean linen, the polished surfaces of Mrs Ritter’s dressing-table, the cushions neatly plumped on the little sofa in the bay window. She saw that diamond, sitting where she had left it with her scrawled note on the dresser, a tiny glittering hand grenade.
Actually,’ Jess said, hauling the suitcase past Nathalie, ‘can I have a quick word, Nat?’ She tried to catch her eye, but Nathalie was busy gazing at Mrs Ritter’s shoes.
‘I love your pumps,’ she said breathlessly.
‘Do you, Nathalie? I got them while I was away. They were an absolute bargain.’
‘Mrs Ritter’s been to Spain, Nat,’ Jess said pointedly, stopping beside her. ‘A mini-break.’
Nathalie glanced up and smiled. Nothing.
‘She got back this morning.’
‘Lovely,’ said Nathalie, beaming.
Jess felt panic rising inside her, like an unstoppable tide. ‘I tell you what, I’ll carry this upstairs for you,’ she said, pushing past Mrs Ritter.
‘You don’t have to do that!’
‘It’s no bother.’ She wondered if Lisa Ritter had registered the strange set to her face. She could make it upstairs, she thought. She could run into the bedroom, fetch the earring, stuff it into her pocket and shove Nathalie into the car before she could say anything, and Mrs Ritter would never know. They would decide what to do about it later.
But even as she hurled herself through the back door some part of her already knew what would happen.
‘So did Jess tell you?’
She was halfway up the stairs. Nathalie’s voice carried, as clear as a bell, through the open window.
‘We found one of your earrings. We thought you might have the other one put by.’
‘Earrings?’ said Mrs Ritter.
‘Diamond. I think it’s a platinum setting. Fell out of the bed linen. You’re lucky we didn’t vacuum it up.’
There was a short silence.
Jess closed her eyes, stood very still on the stairs and waited as the inevitable words floated up to her.
‘How was I supposed to know Mrs Ritter doesn’t have pierced ears?’
They sat in the cleaning van, slumped in their seats. Nathalie was smoking, even though she had given up six weeks ago.For the fourth time.
‘I don’t look at people’s ears. Do you look at people’s ears?’
‘I think you must have been mistaken,’ Lisa Ritter had said, her voice quivering slightly with the effort, as she held it in her hand. ‘It’s probably my daughter’s, from when she came home last time. She’s got a pair just like it.’
‘Of course,’ Jess said. ‘It probably got kicked in here. Or carried in on someone’s shoe. We knew it would be something like that.’ And she knew right then, when Mrs Ritter turned away from her, that that would be it. Nobody thanked you for bringing bad news to their door.
Nobody wanted a cleaner knowing their bad business.
‘Eighty pounds a week, guaranteed. And holiday pay.’
Nathalie let out a sudden scream. ‘Bloody hell. I actually want to find the tart who owns that bloody earring and thump her for losing us our best job.’
‘Maybe she didn’t know he was married.’
‘Oh, she knew.’ Before she’d met Dean, Nathalie had spent two years with a man who turned out to have not one but two families on the other side of Southampton. ‘No single man keeps colour-coordinated scatter cushions on his bed.’
‘Neil Brewster does,’ Jess said.
‘Neil Brewster’s music collection is sixty-seven per cent Judy Garland, thirty-three per cent Pet Shop Boys.’
At the end of the road a padded toddler toppled gently onto the ground like a felled tree and, after a brief silence, let out a thin wail. Its mother, her two armloads of shopping bags perfectly balanced, stood and stared in mute dismay.
‘Look, you heard what she said the other week – she’d get rid of her hairdresser before she’d get rid of us.’
‘Before she got rid of “the cleaners”. That’s different. She won’t care whether it’s us or Speedicleanz or Maids With Mops.’ Nathalie shook her head. ‘Nope. To her, from now on, we’ll always be the cleaners who know the truth about her husband. It matters to women like her. They’re all about appearances, aren’t they?’
The mother put down her bags and stooped to pick up the toddler. A few houses away, Terry Blackstone emerged from under the bonnet of his Ford Focus, a car that had not run in eighteen months, and peered out to see what was making all the noise.
Jess put her bare feet up on the dashboard and let her face fall into her hands. ‘Bugger it. How are we going to make up the money, Nat? That was our best job.’
‘The house was immaculate. It was basically a twice a week polishing job.’ Nathalie stared out of the window.
‘And she always paid on time.’
‘And she used to give us stuff.’
Jess kept seeing that diamond earring. Why hadn’t they just ignored it? It would have been better if one of them had stolen it. ‘Okay, so she’s going to cancel us. Let’s change the subject, Nat. I can’t afford to cry before my pub shift.’
‘So, did Marty ring this week?’
‘I didn’t mean change the subject to that.’
‘Well, did he?’
Jess sighed. ‘Yup.’
‘Did he say why he didn’t ring the week before?’ Nathalie shoved Jess’s feet off the dashboard.
‘Nope.’ Jess could feel her staring. ‘And no, he didn’t send any money.’
‘Oh, come on. You’ve got to get the Child Support Agency onto him. You can’t carry on like this. He should send money for his own kids.’
It was an old argument. ‘He’s . . . he’s still not right,’ Jess said. ‘I can’t put more pressure on him. He hasn’t got a job yet.’
‘Well, you’re going to need it now. Until we get another job like Lisa Ritter’s. How’s Nicky?’
‘Oh, I went round to Jason Fisher’s house to talk to his mum.’
‘You’re joking. She scares the pants off me. Did she say she’d get him to leave Nicky alone?’
‘Something like that.’
Nathalie kept her eyes on Jess and dropped her chin two inches.
‘She told me if I set foot on her doorstep once more she’d batter me halfway to next Wednesday. Me and my . . . what was it? . . .. me and my “freakazoid kids”.’ She pulled down the passenger mirror and checked her hair, pulling it back into a ponytail. ‘Oh, and then she told me her Jason wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
‘It’s fine. I had Norman with me. And, bless him, he took an enormous dump next to their Toyota and somehow I forgot I had a plastic bag in my pocket.’
Jess put her feet back up.
Nathalie pushed them down again and mopped the dashboard with a wet wipe. ‘Seriously, though, Jess. How long has Marty been gone? Two years? You’ve got to get back on the horse. You’re young. You can’t wait around for him to sort himself out,’ she said, with a grimace.
‘Get back on the horse. Nice.’
‘Liam Stubbs fancies you. You could totally ride that.’
‘Any certified pair of X chromosomes could ride Liam Stubbs.’ Jess closed the window. ‘I’m better off reading a book. Besides, I think the kids have had enough upheaval in their lives without playing Meet Your New Uncle. Right.’ She looked up, wrinkled her nose at the sky. ‘I’ve got to get the tea on and then I’ve got to get ready for the pub. I’ll do a quick ring-round
before I go, see if any of the clients want any extras doing. And, you never know, she might not cancel us.’
Nathalie lowered her window, and blew out a long trail of smoke. ‘Sure, Dorothy. And our next job is going to be cleaning the Emerald City palace at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.’