In her new novel The Parrots, Alexandra Shulman weaves a subtle narrative revolving around the intertwined lives of London’s moneyed elite. Read an extract from the story that tells of what goes on behind closed doors in some of the capital’s most exclusive postcodes.
It was the year there was no summer. The optimism of spring with the promise of sunshine, rose- and lavender- scented gardens, bare limbs and smoking barbecues was confounded by relentless grey and torrential downpours, the gardens devastated by the rain, the roses battered, their leaves riddled with mould.
Yes, there were the occasional hours of almost painfully sharp sun when the sodden lawns and borders and dripping trees would suddenly sparkle like fairy lights. And sometimes the arrival of the two, three, sometimes four parrots on the branches of the morello cherry tree would coincide with this brilliance in a flash of emerald, turquoise and gold, startling anyone spotting them for the first time. But more often in the dank grey it was their colour alone that would transform the neat lawn, box hedging and tragic beds of 30 Norland Terrace into something other than a nicely sized patch in one of the more expensive London streets. Despite their incongruous presence, the parrots were entirely confident in their ownership of wherever they happened to land and some days would remain perched for hours, unchallenged by the drab pigeons and starlings more often found there.
Katherine Tennison glanced at a pair of the parrots as she prepared her breakfast. Now, in late September, the morning was warm, a frustrating reminder of what had been missing the whole summer. She was still not immune to the transforming effect of the birds on the garden, although they had been appearing since early spring, when the bare branches made their visits all the more obvious. There were no rules as to when they would arrive. Sometimes, like today, they would be perched there casually in the morning, sometimes it would be early evening; guests for cocktails.
The silence in the house seemed louder than its usual soundtrack of washing machines and vacuum cleaners, the housekeeper Mariella’s commentary on its deficiencies, ringing mobiles and chatter from a distant television which Josh, if it were up to him, would leave on for days when he was still at home. She watched the sticky trail of honey from the wooden drizzler make a pattern on her yoghurt. The ceramic honey hive reminded her of the weekend they’d found it on a cluttered table on a Cotswold high street. It had been the spring before Josh was conceived. Rick’s arm was across her shoulders, clamping her to him, demonstrating his ownership of her. And how flattered she’d been to be claimed in that way. To be his. Momentarily, she was nostalgic for that couple, for the narrow vision of their youth, the absence of knowledge of what was to come, the years dominated by her desire to have a second child.
Her vision (and she acknowledged that it was hers, not Rick’s) of a family had never been just them and Josh. Both she and Rick were one of three: she had two brothers and he two sisters. But despite her determination and diligence, despite the money, despite the injections, supplements, timetabled sex, shrinks, examinations and endless waiting rooms with dusty pot plants and property magazines, they had been unable to conceive another child.
‘Morning, darling!’ Rick bellowed from the hallway, dropping the squash racquets from his regular morning session on to the floor. He pressed his lips to her forehead, simultaneously flinging the mail down on the kitchen island. ‘I hope I didn’t wake you earlier. Rubbish game. Ed destroyed me. Destroyed me.’ He swiped an imaginary ball towards the glass doors leading on to the garden. ‘It was obvious right from the first serve. Must have been that second bottle last night that did for me.’ He squinted through the glare on the glass. ‘Parrots in residence, I see.’
As he walked towards the doors Katherine could smell the game on him, rich and tangy. Often, she had less of a physical sense of him when he was right next to her than when he moved away and she looked at him: solid; ginger hair faded to a pale sand but still gratifyingly there in thick waves, when most of his contemporaries were either bald or grey.
‘I’ll make some coffee. Toast? Eggs?’
‘Just the caffeine hit, I think.’ Rick stretched, arching his back and bending his knees, his loose cotton jogging pants hiding sturdy thighs. He pulled down the locks at the top of the high doors to the garden. As he walked out, the parrots, first one and, seconds after, the other, flew from the branch in a crackling rush into the clear blue of the sky.
The large kitchen was at the back of the house, transplanted from the front when the Tennisons arrived five years before. The tall stucco- fronted building in a terrace of similarly gleaming properties had been in perfectly reasonable condition, but they wouldn’t have bought it if Katherine hadn’t been able to see that work could be done to improve it. It might be Rick’s family money, but it was her skill at renovation and her vision when it came to interior decoration that had made their property buys so successful.
‘I might get on with some deadheading later!’ shouted Rick as he squatted by a border, resisting the impulse to tear a dead flower from its stem by hand. ‘I must buy some new clippers this weekend.’ Despite his poor performance that morning, playing squash had filled him with a sense of well-being. ‘Did you see? There’s a letter for you. It’s on the top of the usual pile of crap. All that do‑good stuff dropped through the door. I reckon we could save a rainforest simply by losing all their flyers.’
Katherine didn’t immediately recognize the handwriting on the heavy cream envelope, though the stamp was foreign. ‘Dear Katherine,’ she read. Of course. It was Ann.
It has been such a long time since we’ve seen each other, but I write to ask you a favour. My children Matteo and Antonella are coming to London for a stay and I would love them to visit my dear friend Katherine. I’ve been away for so long that I feel quite out of touch with the place and it would be helpful to think that you might introduce them to some friends. Of course, they are now adult and independent. But it would be great if they could see you. And that might mean that you will finally visit Milano?
Extract taken from The Parrots, Alexandra Shulman (Fig Tree).